John Calipari: “They believe in each other”

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ST. LOUIS — Here’s the transcript of John Calipari’s press conference earlier today:

Now the head coach of the Wildcats, John Calipari, is with us. We’re going to ask him to make a statement about his team and being here in St. Louis. Then we’ll go to questions. John?

COACH CALIPARI: Well, obviously we’re happy to be in the tournament and playing, and playing better. And probably playing right now as well as we played all year, which I am happy about. It has taken some time. You know, we thought we had it, and then we lost it, and now we got it back, so feeling pretty good.

Q. John, why do you think it took awhile? You guys were preseason No. 1.

COACH CALIPARI: We had five freshmen. We start five freshmen. And it takes awhile.

The thing that I try to do every year is empower the team and let them understand it’s their team, it’s not my team. And it just takes a long time for these guys to be able to be in that position.

Every team I’ve ever coached I am hard on. I push them, I drive them. This team I was hard probably longer than other teams, but from body language to habits to other things, you couldn’t cheer them on those things. And they were not acceptable.

Now you’re seeing a team that’s playing more together, that shows less emotion. And, you know, people always say I coach young teams. I’ve never coached five freshmen, so it’s taken longer. But it doesn’t matter that it took longer, it’s just that they’re starting to get it.

Q. As a follow‑up on the youth issue, are there things that you don’t implement Xs and Os with a team of freshmen that you would normally? And are there things you add late in the year that may give this team a different look than a month ago?

COACH CALIPARI: Obviously we tweaked a couple of things. We tweaked one thing before the tournament and now we tweaked another thing. And I am anxious to see the change in our play one more time.

But the one thing I will tell you that it took me more time to really figure out exactly where these guys fit together. Not their fault, my fault. And when I tweaked the first thing, it became so evident, I was mad at me, why didn’t I recognize this earlier. Even the second thing. But I’m not sure they were ready to take all the things earlier in the year. And I think it took time for them to say, you know, to surrender, tell us, because we want to win. Because they are great kids.

And the other thing I will tell you with this group, and I told them how proud I am. It’s been an onslaught of criticism, personal, coaching, team, all that. They believe in each other, they believe in the staff, they believe in what we are trying to do. And it tells a lot about them and their character.

Q. Coach, what are some of the unique challenges that come with playing a smaller team like Kansas State?

COACH CALIPARI: Well, they really‑‑you say “smaller,” but they’re physical. They play a physical game. Their guard play, you know, they’re not going to beat themselves. They run good stuff. And defensively, they’re coming at you. I mean, there’s no‑‑they’re not giving up an inch.

So yes, they may not be 7‑foot tall, but there aren’t many teams in college basketball 7‑foot tall. And I think they’re an outstanding team and it’s a very, very first opening round game, a very tough game for anybody to play.

Q. That onslaught of criticism that you referred to a little while ago, probably because of the preseason No.1. With everybody you lost from last year, was that fair to the team, to be preseason No.1?

COACH CALIPARI: It’s what‑‑you’re at Kentucky, that’s part of it. Some of it was warranted. I mean, we played Florida at home and really played them well and had a chance to win. Go to Mississippi and play well, and then we kind of get in, you know, the doldrums. We were flat, we didn’t do it together.

So some of this stuff was warranted. But some of it was, you know, you build it up so high it gives you a chance to start whacking at it. But that’s part of it.

And again, they have handled it great, and I am proud of them. I am enjoying coaching this team. I am able to do less now. I’ve been able to be more of a cheerleader. But I am going to say it again, there are certain things you cannot cheer. There are certain things you cannot accept. I don’t care if they are 21 or 18. But when they’re 18, they have to know right away there are certain things. And anybody who played for me will tell you that he is really hard early and then he kind of backs up.

But I think it helps them later. They understand and what is acceptable and what’s not.

Q. Coach, you obviously had so much talent at Kentucky. K‑State freshman, Marcus Foster, when you look at him, what catches your eye? And what kind of potential does it carry for down the road?

COACH CALIPARI: Oh, he’s terrific. I mean, when you watch him, he has no fear. He’s got the ultimate green light. Like he makes plays when you feel like making them, and he does. He is not backing up from anybody.

You know, I talked to our freshmen from Texas about him and they said we knew who he was. And now he’s kind of been cut loose and you are like wow.

So they have got a terrific player and somebody we know. I mean, he’s one of those guys. We played against some of them. They are hard to guard when they have the ultimate green light and we are running stuff for them, and running motion and putting them in hand‑offs and getting them on pin‑downs and getting him in the lane, on transition if he is open, he just lets it go.

Fun to watch. I am not sure he is going to be fun to play against, but he is fun to watch.

Q. A couple of your players up there said they wanted to “shock the world.” Is it really possible for a University of Kentucky team to “shock the world”?

COACH CALIPARI: Well, yeah, when everybody says you have no chance. So you can.

But I’m trying to get them to focus. And again, when they make that kind of statement, they are not totally listening to me now. You must stay in the moment and play good basketball games. It’s what we do. It’s what we’ve done, it’s how we’re playing.

So I don’t watch any TV right now. I don’t care what’s going on. I don’t care who won or who lost. It has no bearing on our game with Kansas State.

Obviously my 18‑year‑olds are not listening to me if that is the statement they make. But that’s okay. Now I will go back and kill them and it will give me another opportunity to say something to them.

We are worried about one game. Let’s shock the world tomorrow, one game. And then we’ll go from there. And it’s maybe good enough, it may not be good enough. We’re playing an outstanding opponent.

Q. With Aaron and Andrew, how have their games respectively kind of evolved from the beginning of the year?

COACH CALIPARI: They are playing their best basketball, they really are. Our team is starting to play its best basketball. Our defense is starting to be better than it’s been. But we’re still not all playing well.

And that’s why I said I’ve got a couple more things I had to do, and the one big tweak that I’m hoping has an effect on what we do now, is we finish.

But, you know, again, it’s not just individual play, it’s team play. The best teams are going to win. The teams that play defense together, that share the ball, that just fight like heck and don’t give up on the game. I love Tennessee is down 16‑4 and they never gave up on the game. They kept playing. And all of a sudden it is close enough where they have a chance to win, and they take it to overtime and win. And that’s what the tournament is. That’s how you have to play these games.

Q. John, can you talk about Marcus Lee, one of your freshmen, who played a lot more early, not so much lately. How has he maintained and what does he need to do to be a more productive player for you?

COACH CALIPARI: Well, we started him early in the year and he was really effective. He got sick and he lost like 15 pounds. And if you know him, I don’t know where it came from. Like where did he lose 15 pounds? But he did.

He has made strides from there and we put him in games, and every game we put him in he has been effective. He has to keep improving his skill and he is going to have to get stronger and he knows it.

But he is an outstanding talent. He is one of the nicest kids on the team. I love having him and he is going to be a terrific player for us.

Q. John, the way the Florida game ended James just slipped, but afterwards Andrew was adamant that it was his fault, I gave it to him too late, gave it to him in a bad spot, am I making too much or is that a maturity, team‑first break through?

COACH CALIPARI: One of the things I hope I am teaching is don’t be afraid to take responsibility, even sometimes when it’s not yours. And I hope they watch and see that they know that it has to be me and our staff. We make a mistake, say I screwed it up. If you want to protect somebody, don’t feel bad about doing it. It is not a bad reflection on you, just take it.

And so I am proud that they did that. It was neither of their faults. It was my fault. And again, we didn’t need to call time‑out there. We could have done what we did without a time‑out. And we had them on their heels. Never should have called a time‑out. I said it at the time. I don’t ever call time‑outs there and I don’t know, I did.

So I am happy that they are trying to defend each other. Let’s hope that we defend Kansas State the same way.

Q. Coach, some of the players in the locker room just told me the reason they played so much better during the SEC Tournament is because they were listening to you. Is that what you saw?

COACH CALIPARI: I want them to listen less to me and listen to each other. That’s how they get empowered. The only thing I did was I tweaked a couple of things and those guys listened to me. What I said to do they did. And all of a sudden it changed.

But how about this, why didn’t I say it two months earlier? Now, maybe they wouldn’t have accepted it two months earlier, but I’ve done this a long time. And I’ve had guys that I’ve had to define their game for them. And I waited on this.

And again, part of it is, you know, I am trying to figure them out. We had all freshmen, but you know what? They are responding, I am happy for them. I happy when I see Aaron play like he does or Andrew. I want to see Julius, I want him to show the world what he is as a player. Willie, I am so proud of him. Alex, not even the same player he was a year ago. These kids all got better.

James Young has gotten better, he is defending better. So when you look at it, Dakari, he is not the same player he was at the beginning of the year. That’s what we are supposed to do and what we are trying to do. And I want them to listen to each other more than me, I really do.

Q. John, after the way they played in Atlanta, was there a noticeable difference in practice this week, especially in their attitude?

COACH CALIPARI: The change in practice was Monday of last week. Football practice for 21/2 hours. That was the change. That’s not them, that’s why didn’t I do that from the beginning of the year? Why didn’t we play football? And I always practiced that way and we didn’t.

This week we had to give them Monday off. They just went through games in 48 hours, they needed Monday off. Tuesday we went a long time in the evening. And yesterday we went‑‑at home we practiced and then we came here and we practiced here.

So it’s time now to, you know, we didn’t do much this morning, we’re going to shoot 30 minutes on the court and get ready to throw it up and play basketball.

Q. Coach, some of the players from other teams talked about their parents, relatives not able to afford to come watch them at the tournament. How much discussion does that issue get? Does it need to be discussed even more?

COACH CALIPARI: It’s something to discuss after this tournament. Right now I’m trying to get my team ready to play a great game. It’s all pertinent information that needs to be discussed.

Q. John, this will be the first NCAA Tournament game for you since the National Championship game. Because of the way last year ended up, does that make you more appreciative of being in the NCAA Tournament? Or have you always been that appreciative in the years that your teams make the NCAA Tournament?

COACH CALIPARI: Let me say this. I coached at Massachusetts and Memphis. I wasn’t in a BCS school my whole career. So I appreciate every opportunity to play in this tournament.

Am I ever happy with the seed? Not one year. Except when we were the 1‑1 seed. Am I appreciative for my team to have an opportunity to be in this thing? Absolutely. And I want them to soak it up. And I want them to enjoy everything. I don’t hold them up. I want them to enjoy it all.

Now, again, I want them focused on playing basketball, but these are young men that are going to go through this. Now enjoy it. Enjoy the whole thing about it and that’s what we’ve always tried to do.

But no, we appreciate that we’re here. Even though at times we’re not real happy with our seeds.

THE MODERATOR: Anything else for the head coach?

Q. Describe football practice.

COACH CALIPARI: Helmets, pads, cleats. We slid around. Body‑‑put your hand, I just need to see your palms. Now foul the guy. Play through it. I don’t want to hear it. Everything was physical, from the beginning of practice ’til we ended.

And it made us more confident that we could play through that kind of play. It also put us in a position where if that’s how the game is going, then we can play that way. And then we tweaked a little bit of stuff and it changed how we played. And it was nothing major. But it was enough to get these guys thinking a little different and now this next thing that we’re trying, we’ll see. We’ll see what it does for us tomorrow.

Q. John, what do you like about having Willie and Dakari on the floor at the same time?

COACH CALIPARI: I liked it. It changed the whole game. Two 7‑footers. Willie plays like a 4‑3 and Dakari is a moose. I liked it, I really did. It is something we’ll go to now because they played so well defensively together against an unbelievable team in Florida.

Do I get to go or do you have to excuse me? It is not that I want to run from you people, I really enjoy this.

Q. The second tweak, is it going to be something, those of us who don’t know basketball will not be able to recognize? Or will even we know what the second tweak is?

COACH CALIPARI: You will not recognize it, John, I know that. It’s something that you’ll see that you should be able to say, I see what he was doing. I saw it. And I see it, and I see it in this guy and that guy. And then you’re going to say, Why didn’t he do it earlier? Why did he wait? Thank goodness that we did it, and now we’re playing better.

And again, it doesn’t make us supermen, we’re a bunch of young kids going into a game with veteran players and a young kid that can score 35 on you if he chooses to. It is going to be an unbelievable hard game for us, but we’re excited about being here and still playing.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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