Not an easy street
It may be Kentucky, but the message is -- it's never been easy
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The statistic does not make a lot of sense. It bespeaks a team on an unpredictable and unruly road. That’s what makes it so. ... Kentucky.
The Wildcats have rolled to the Final Four with one classic win after another, past one glittering foe after another, from Wichita State to Louisville to Michigan. “I don’t even know what to call it, what we just went through,” John Calipari was saying on Thursday. They have also committed 13 more turnovers than their opponents. They have 14 more turnovers in the tournament than they have assists.
That would often kill a team’s chances faster than bug spray dooms a mosquito, but nothing has killed this team’s chances. And that is why Calipari has a centerpiece season for his coaching legacy.
Calipari accumulates blue chip talent like squirrels accumulate acorns. He gets his phenoms to the arena on time, gives some basic direction, and sends them out to win, which they do. A lot.
Then, they go to the NBA.
Or so the story goes.
But whatever fate awaits Kentucky in AT&T Stadium this weekend, there is a message from their swaying season: It is not that easy. It has never been that easy. And it certainly wasn’t that easy this year.
This is the season Kentucky was ranked No. 1 at the beginning. Then fell back with bad body language and bad vibes, while the critics circled, sensing blood from an under-achieving conglomerate. Then transformed into a team of steel at the end, surviving one trial by fire after another, surviving its own flaws, and the best efforts of three top-seven opponents.
This is a team that needed rethinking, rebooting and a reminder of what the mission was all about. In other words, this is a team that needed coaching. Recruiting wizard or not, the man had to glue together pieces that did not seem to fit. And always, there was the noise from the outside.
“This team was built up to be torn down. I always wonder if it’s the opinion or the hope of how people feel about this team,” Calipari said. “But they withstood it. They were under immense fire. They never wavered.
“That in itself is a great story of `How in the word did you guys overcome that?’ Well, it made us stronger. It made us tougher. It made us harder.”
One of his mantras these past weeks: “We almost ran out of runway.”’
Which they did. “We just stayed the course,” Julius Randle said.
The attention never fades at Kentucky, and the expectations never dim. There is no closing the door to fix problems in private. A state worships, and a state watches, and a state winces in pain when the results are unacceptable. Meanwhile, much of the outside world roots for failure, as what happens with most empires. Ask the Yankees. And don’t even get some people started on the one-and-done deal.
Asked Thursday to explain why his program makes such a fine target, Calipari condensed the issue down to two words.
So what must it be like, carrying the flag for Big Blue Nation?
“It’s a coat every day for 24 hours that you wear,” Calipari said. “This isn’t for every player. It just isn’t.
“Every game is the Super Bowl. You’re scrutinized because people are attacking me. What we’re doing has never been done. You can’t do this. So you’re getting that hit. If you can’t deal with all that, don’t come here.”
Fact is, the Wildcats weren’t remotely close to answering their lavish promise much of the season. Something was amiss. When something is amiss at Kentucky, everyone knows it.
But this team zig-zagged to the Final Four, through questions and doubt and wobbly nights. “All of the stuff we went through, all of the stuff I went through individually, it was just preparing us for right now,” Andrew Harrison said the other day.
Not that everything is perfect. They are still nearly all freshman, and have trailed in every NCAA tournament game. Calipari explained last week’s horrendous early minutes against Louisville -- when they fell behind 13 -- with a memorable quote, He mentioned how he had told his staff beforehand that the Wildcats would, uh, well, have an accident down their leg, so to speak.
Calipari has talked incessantly this month of mysterious “tweaks” he made, berating himself for almost waiting too long to make them.
Tweaks? What tweaks? He won’t say, repeating cryptically that people who really know basketball would see it, and he doesn’t count many of the media in that group. One day, he promised, he’ll lay it all out, so even the simpletons with cameras and tape recorders can understand. Maybe next Monday night, if it is Kentucky’s title to keep.
But apparently, his journey this season started with him being deluded by his talent, then swerved into a role of harsh taskmaster, and finally veered into being a kinder and gentler teacher.
“I started reading what everybody was writing. I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be easy,’’’ he said of the early season. “This was very difficult for all of us. It was difficult because my coaching was allowing them the body language, the effort less than what it needed to be, the focus less than it needed to be. At times, selfishness.
“And then I became a little mean because we had to get it changed."
So Kentucky labored through the winter, still winning most of the time, but looking little like the national championship contender so many expected. Hence, the No. 8 seed. But something clicked, just in time.
“You cannot skip steps," Calipari said. "You want to skip steps, but you can’t.”
Calipari talks of his players finally losing themselves within a team purpose. “They became better. They became more confident, and all of a sudden, this is what you have.
“But it took us four months. ... If they were ready to accept it two months ago, we wouldn’t have been an eighth seed playing in the gauntlet that we just played.”
Apparently, it dialed down his anxiety.
“People are saying, `Boy, he looks more relaxed.’ I am more relaxed because I don’t have to look out there and see a guy not going hard, a guy passing up a teammate, taking five bad shots. I’m not dealing with that anymore.
“Now I can just coach basketball.”
“Before I think he was coaching emotion and he was coaching energy,” Aaron Harrison said, the not-afraid-to-fail Wildcat who hit the biggest shots last week against Louisville and Michigan. “Now he’s just teaching us. And I think that we have our own emotion. We bring our own energy to the game, and coach doesn’t have to force that in us anymore.”
So the Wildcats are in the Final Four, just like so many assumed (or feared) last November. “Now, my whole mission is to make sure we’re not satisfied,” Calipari said Thursday.
It was not easy. It has never been easy. Not even at Kentucky.