CLEVELAND — Transcript from Kentucky’s press conference Wednesday in advance of Thursday’s NCAA Tournament game between the Cats and West Virginia on Thursday.
MODERATOR: We’ll be joined by student-athletes from Kentucky, and they have now arrived. Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis. We’re looking for the first question.
Q. Tyler, being a freshman and everything, can you sort of give an idea of who on the team would be considered the team’s leader and how he goes about that business?
TYLER ULIS: Well, the leaders on the team are basically Andrew and Willie. They tell us when, like in the summer, they tell us when to work out and stuff like that. They just try to talk to us and just walk us through certain things in the game.
Q. Devin, you guys have seen presses all year, and I know you haven’t seen West Virginia’s in person yet, but on film, how does it look different?
DEVIN BOOKER: I don’t know that it’s much different, but we know that they’re going to play hard and it’s going to be a physical game, and we have been preparing for that all weekend. We still haven’t watched a lot of film, but I’m sure we are, but like I said, we know that they are a going to be physical and I think we’re going to be prepared for it.
Q. This is for anybody, I just wondered if you guys, how do you check your egos at the door when you come to play for Kentucky? Is that understood before you get there, or does someone teach you? How does that work?
DAKARI JOHNSON: You know, Coach Cal does a good job; he doesn’t promise you anything when you come here, so from the bat, you just have to start off and work hard, that’s what you have to do.
MARCUS LEE: As Coach Cal always talks about, we have good kids in teammates so when you kind of fall in love with your team, you kind of don’t have to worry about that.
Q. This is for Tyler and Devin, back in the stone ages, freshman were ineligible. There’s been some talk, particularly coming from the PAC-10, let’s revisit that. I’m just curious, A, what do you think about freshmen being ineligible, and what do you think your guys would do, let’s say your freshman year, if you couldn’t play for a year?
TYLER ULIS: Well, it’s a little late for us now, but if I couldn’t play for this year, I would probably be really upset because this is a special team and we probably won’t play on a team like this ever again.
DEVIN BOOKER: I’m glad they got away from that. Kind of like Tyler said, I would be disappointed if we couldn’t play, but I’ve heard the rumors they’re talking about, and I’m glad I’m past my freshman year.
Q. Tyler, you talked about the press, I guess you talked about their press a little bit. How important is it, they’ve had games where they turned teams over 20-plus times; how important, you handle the ball a lot, to not turn it over and what is the key to not beating presses like that?
TYLER ULIS: I pride myself in not turning the ball over, so I’ve got to just make sure I’m focused and just handle the pressure. Just try to treat it like we did with Louisville and Arkansas and stuff like that, just focus on taking care of the ball.
Q. Dakari, can you talk about West Virginia’s front line, what you see from them, how you think you’ll attack that and how they’ll attack you?
DAKARI JOHNSON: Like Devin said, we haven’t went over much tape, but we know they’re going to be a physical team and we’ve been working on a lot of rebounding drills. We know that they’re going to crash the glass hard, so we’ve just been working on that and the physicality play all week.
Q. Any of you guys really, a lot of you could have went to any schools and everything, what is it about Coach Cal that makes you drawn to him or like him, do you remember the first time you met him, what is it about his personality that makes you want to play for him and with him?
DAKARI JOHNSON: You know, he’s just a competitor. When he came and watched me play, he sat down and told me he wasn’t going to promise me anything, and he just wanted me to come in and work hard. And he’s a big competitor and I’m a big competitor.
TYLER ULIS: Like Dakari said, he didn’t promise us anything; he told us he was going to put us on a stage and we had to play, we had to come here and earn our spot and just get better every day.
MARCUS LEE: Like they both said, we weren’t promised anything, we were told that you had to earn your spot so you couldn’t lack at any practice. You were going to play against the best in pros each day in practice.
DEVIN BOOKER: He’s just down to Earth, told us that we’re not going to get anything given to us when we get here and we’re going to have to work for it. He just gets the best out of you when you come here.
Q. For Tyler and Devin, the West Virginia players expressed a lot of confidence in their press and their conditioning and they say it takes a toll on teams. Will it be different against a Kentucky team that not only has your skill but has two basic units so that you’re constantly rotating with each other?
TYLER ULIS: Yeah, it will be different because we have nine guys he plays, rotating in and out, two point guards, a lot of people who can handle the ball, so that’s going to be a little bit different with the rotation and stuff like that.
DEVIN BOOKER: Kind of like Tyler said, our depth’s important and we’re going to be playing at a fast-paced game and I think we’ll be ready for it.
Q. Would any of the players also address your size? It would seem like you would have big targets that would help just throw it over it, the press?
DAKARI JOHNSON: Yeah, our size also can be a big factor, I think. We’ve been working on a lot of different press attacks with some of the bigs up.
DEVIN BOOKER: I think our size and spacing will be good. Like Dakari said, we’ve been working on it most of the weekend with our size and spacing, I think it will be good for us.
Q. West Virginia took down a very talented Kentucky team five years ago in the tournament. Are you guys aware of that? Have you heard about that this week?
DAKARI JOHNSON: Not really. I mean, we heard about back when they lost to John Wall and that team, but you know, it’s five years later, so it’s a different team.
TYLER ULIS: Yeah, that was my first time hearing about that, but that really doesn’t relate to us because like you said, it was five years ago.
MARCUS LEE: Yeah, this is two different teams playing at a different time, so I don’t think it matters.
DEVIN BOOKER: Just like they said, two different teams.
Q. I was just wondering, were you guys drawn to Kentucky even before, like way back were you watching them, were you watching them before Coach Cal came?
DAKARI JOHNSON: Yeah, a little bit even before Coach Cal came. I actually used to live in Lexington for a couple years.
TYLER ULIS: No, I didn’t watch them growing up. I actually watched Coach Cal at Memphis because he had Derrick Rose, I was a person who watched certain players.
MARCUS LEE: As a kid you just kind of watch basketball no matter who’s playing, so you got around to watching just about every team.
DEVIN BOOKER: Yeah, I knew it was an historic program growing up but I didn’t really pay much attention to it until Coach got there when he brought John Wall to Kentucky.
Q. Dakari, Marcus and Devin, if you could address the way that Tyler has improved this year and what ways his game has gotten better especially toward the tournament?
DAKARI JOHNSON: I think he’s in attack mode more. You know, he’s the facilitator first, but he’s also looking to score, too, so it just adds another threat to his game.
MARCUS LEE: Yeah, this year he’s just a total pit bull. So him going at our guards and bigger players, he’s kind of figuring out how to score against bigger players.
DEVIN BOOKER: He’s just a floor general out there. He can get everybody involved and he can score at the same time, so he’s a problem for the other team.
Q. Dakari, you guys have a chance to make history and do something that no team’s done since ’76. Is that something you guys talk about, running the table or being undefeated?
DAKARI JOHNSON: We really don’t talk about it, we just take it one game at a time and focus on who we have next. You know, we just don’t pay attention to that that much.
MODERATOR: We would like to thank Dakari, Tyler, Marcus and Devin for joining us into the main interview room. We’re joined now in the main interview room by University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari. We’ll ask Coach to please make an opening statement, then we’ll take questions.
COACH CALIPARI: We’re happy we’re still playing and the kids are in a great frame of mind. I’m really focused on my team, trying to stay focused on what we control, and the kids seem to be in a great spirit.
Q. John, you’ve seen presses all year. What makes West Virginia’s different?
COACH CALIPARI: You know, the thing I would tell you, I’ve seen Bobby’s teams over the years, obviously we’ve been friends for a long time, but he’s doing stuff this year I’ve not seen him do and that tells you the kind of coach he is. He looked at his team and he said, hey, we’re going to have to play a little different. So they’re giving up two-point baskets, high percentage, which I’ve never seen a team have a field goal percentage that high and do this well. But they’re creating havoc, they’re taking you out of your offense, they’re creating opportunities for tough shots or turnovers. They’re playing very physical, they’re coming in and letting you know it’s going to be body to body, you had better be ready. He looked at his team and he said, that’s how we have to play. And offensively, we have to space this court, we’ve got to beat them on the dribble. It’s what it’s about, what team do I have, how do we have to play to have success, and he’s got them believing. And again, they’re a talented team now, they’ve got talent, but he’s got them believing, which is special.
Q. You talked about you and Coach Huggins being such good friends. What do you respect about him the most? And then second part of that question, y’all first faced each other in 1993, what difference do you see in his coaching style from then until today?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, he and I used to be the young coaches, we were the young guys, and we turn around and now we’re the old guys. I don’t understand that, what happened, but that’s what happened. I’ve always respected what he does coaching his basketball teams, how hard they play, how physical they play, how they rebound. There’s almost like things that you’ll see and you’ll say that’s his team. If they don’t do those things, they’re not doing what he wants and you know those teams are struggling. But his teams, they play, they compete, they play to win, they don’t have any fear. I’ve always respected that. But again, we went from the young coaches to now he and I are like the old guys. Like what in the world happened? And he’s older than me, by the way.
Q. As a follow-up on that, Cal, why are you two such good friends? And can you clear up, was it the nephew or the cousin because he’s still saying it’s the cousin?
COACH CALIPARI: It was my cousin. Well, he’s a Basketball Benny. I mean, he’s from our area. I watched him play when he was at West Virginia, played Duquesne and Pitt and always respected him as a player and I can still remember the first time I met him in person, he had just got the Walsh College job. I was working a basketball camp and he went up to recruit and I went up and introduced myself to him. That was way back, he was 23, 24 years old and became a head coach. But you know, the stuff with my cousin was really simple. He calls me, Mark, and said what should I do. I said save him, I haven’t beaten him yet.
Q. Coach, do some coaching styles naturally match up against other coaching styles? And the reason why I ask this is do you contemplate at all the fact that Huggins is 8-2 against you head to head?
COACH CALIPARI: Maybe, but when you’re playing in these games, none of the past matters. Whether I was 12-0 against a coach, it doesn’t matter, this is a one-game shot. We had teams building, competing. They were great games. I don’t remember any of them being like blowout games, they were always like two teams. I remember I’m like, I think we can get these guys. I had Derek Kellogg as my point guard coaching. He had Nick Van Exel, who went for about 38 and after the game I’m thinking, “What was I thinking?” No disrespect, Derek, you know I love you.
Q. You and he both mentioned their field goal defense against. They shoot 41 percent. You look at the sheet, it doesn’t say Sweet 16. What does that say about his coaching job? He talks about you as coach of the year, what about him?
COACH CALIPARI: I said it all along. I said what he’s done with this team, incredible. And again, he’s taken kids, they’ve gotten better individually and they’ve come together and say here’s the style we can win with, and that’s how they’re playing and they won’t get away from it, that’s who they are. The players now have taken great pride in it and I will tell you that I could see Bob getting Coach of the Year in a lot of different things. There’s no question what he’s done, and again, in a tough league.
Q. What do you think is the key to getting your kids to check their ego at the door? And does the history and the atmosphere in Lexington have anything to do with that?
COACH CALIPARI: You know, everything that we do begins with the recruiting process. If you make outlandish promises, you’re going to take all the shots. You’re going to shoot all the balls, you’re going to play all the minutes, it’s going to be about you, hard to do what we’re doing. We tell these kids this is not for everybody, you’re not going to come here and shoot 30 balls a game. Now, you may get 30 in a game but you’re not averaging 30 because you are going to have seven or eight, six other guys that are just like you, and you’re going to have to defend, you’re going to do your thing. We tell them if you want to run around, chase, you that can’t do it here, they’ll do a 30 for 30 movie on you. You’re here to get better, to go from point A to point B to point C. You’re here to improve yourself. We’ve had 13 of our 16 kids had a B average last term, we had a 3.1 one grade point average. For the last five years we’ve had a 3.0 grade point average as a team, graduated 10 guys, we’ll graduate four from this team. So it’s not at the expense of academics, it’s none of that. These kids have shared. The thing that we had to figure out, is four kids decided to come back. Now you’ve got 10. What do you do? If you want them all to eat, you’ve got to figure out how to play 10 which is why we platooned. Now we’re at nine and I’m trying to play nine. I want all those kids to play, I want them all to have their opportunity but they’ve got to go in and perform.
Q. Coach, this morning LeBron James had some very complimentary words to say about his friendship with you, and the job you’re doing and obviously his team is hopefully on its way to a championship for those in Cleveland. You’re here playing in Cleveland. There’s no way you haven’t thought, at least just a little bit, what it would be like if your role was reversed, right?
COACH CALIPARI: What would my role be reversed, in what way?
Q. If you were coaching here.
COACH CALIPARI: No, I haven’t, and this thing that I have taken on is all-consuming but I’ve kept an eye on Cleveland because I’m a fan, obviously LeBron and I go back a ways and watching what they’re doing and how they’re coming together, knowing stuff doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time for things to click, and I think Dave’s doing a great job, I’ve said it before, and obviously the best player in the universe is LeBron and I’m happy for him and being able to come home and do the things that he’s doing.
Q. Coach, you guys and Wichita State are in the same bracket two years in a row. What did beating them in that third round game last year mean to you guys on your march to the final game?
COACH CALIPARI: That was a heck of a game. That was one of the best college basketball games I’ve been involved in. Shouldn’t have happened that round. I mean, that game should have been a Final Four game or at least a regional final game, but it did. We were very fortunate to get out. They missed a shot at the buzzer to win the game.
Q. It was referenced a little bit earlier, but you did not win Coach of the Year the other day. What did you think of that? Did that bother you? Did you think you deserve that?
COACH CALIPARI: This thing that we’re doing here for players and coaches isn’t about those individual awards. Every one of us has given up stuff so this thing can happen. Players have given up stuff and I’m not coaching for Coach of the Year honors. I’m coaching to win ball games and I’m coaching to help players develop and have an opportunity to reach their dreams. If that other stuff happens, fine. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too.
Q. Just from watching you outside looking in seems like you guys at some point in a game have always seized a momentum, a team could play with you for a half, 30 minutes, 35. As a coach, do you almost come to expect there’s going to come a point to a game where your guys are going to say okay, now it’s our time?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, you would rather them go out and bash somebody from the beginning of the game until the end, make it easier, but when you go through a basketball season, you must be in overtime games, close games, you must be pressed, you must have teams play Princeton offense against you, you must have teams play zone the whole game. You have to face everything so that when you get in this tournament, which is what we’re all playing for, this tournament, anything thrown at you you’ve seen so there’s no confusion. Now you either take the game or they take the game, but there’s no confusion, you’ve been through it all. This team has been down 9 or 10 and done fine. We’ve been up, we’ve beaten really good teams by a lot, we’ve been pressed, we’ve been zoned, trapped, physically mauled. The best thing about this team, they kept their composure, and I will expect that in this game. Cool and composed, battle your butt off, battle, cool and composed. You never really step out of yourself, you know no one in this thing is going to surrender, you want the team to just give up? They’re going to fight you, they’re going to battle you, they’re going to push you, that’s just how it is, they’re not surrendering. So you understand it, my team should understand it and know we’re in for a battle. We know how good West Virginia is.
Q. I talked to John Miller the other day. He was saying you spend a lot of time at the house when you were a kid. A couple questions related to that. Were he and his younger brother an influence to you to get into coaching. He also said you had a Rolodex of all the high school coaches in the area, you would be setting up games, like a junior high kid, and you ran camps. What kind of drove you to do those things? Was it, you know, money; was it competitiveness, was it —
COACH CALIPARI: Well, when I was growing up, I only wanted to be a teacher and a coach because where we grew up, those were the professionals. You didn’t know lawyers and doctors and dentists, you knew the teachers and the coaches. So you looked up to those guys, whether it was John Miller; my own high school coach, Bill Sacco and others, you said that’s who I want to be. Then you go to college and you say, well, maybe there’s more, maybe I can coach this other sport, college basketball. But John and all those guys, in the Valley back in the day, there were some unbelievable coaches that we could all learn from, look up to, emulate, and yeah, we ran camps. And back in the day you went to the center courts, you went to Monaca, Aliquippa had courts, and you traveled to the courts and played, and you had to win because there was 60 guys there and if you lost you had to wait three hours to play again, you had to go home. So you figured out how to battle and win. You won’t believe this, it was outdoors. We played outdoors. Now I’m telling you how old I am. But that’s where, you know, you learned about team, bringing people together, scheduling games, who’s playing, where are we playing because we weren’t in one neighborhood, we were all spread out throughout Pittsburgh, that area.
Q. Coach, I remember the days when you had the trouble getting the Coach of the Year in Atlantic 10, even though you had the best teams there, but wondering if you could take me back to those days —
COACH CALIPARI: Clarksburg, West Virginia, one of my favorite places, lot of Italians.
Q. That’s right. Oliverio’s.
COACH CALIPARI: Oliverio’s. They’ve got the peppers.
Q. I was wondering back in the day, in the Atlantic 10 UMass when you’re first starting out, how different is it now from where you were at that point, and the second question to you is that 2005 game against West Virginia, what do you remember about that?
COACH CALIPARI: I think it was we had 2010, 2011, the West Virginia game. Let me say this about the UMass stuff. I’ll bet you Bobby could talk about getting it going at Cincinnati just like I talk about getting it going at UMass. It’s kind of like that first opportunity you have and you’re in a dogfight. You’re not sitting at the big table, you’re at the little table on the side with all the little kids and they’re having dinner at the main table and you’re trying to figure out how could we eat at the main table, how do we get there. The players that I coached there, again, it wasn’t the era of kids leaving early. In my eight years at UMass, we had one kid leave after his junior year, Marcus Camby, everyone else stayed four years, it was a totally different era. You had an idea what your team would be like. We weren’t able to recruit the McDonald’s All-Americans. We were recruiting good players and guys that had good careers and guys that went on to play professionally, but it’s not like it is now. This stuff is a little different. But I look back on that time in a very fond way. My family still considers UMass our home, Massachusetts our home. My daughters, one was born there, and Erin, both went to school there. It was a special time. The games that we played in 2010, it was different game. 2010, they were the 2-seed, we were the 1-seed. It was a regional final with the 1 and the 2. I think the next year, it may have been in the Round of 32, I believe, I’m not positive, but it may have been in the Round of 32 and Brandon Knight, if I remember, had a big night and shot the ball and scored well, but they were both good games. If I remember right in 2010 we went 0-20 from the 3-point line. So to even be in the game 0-20, I must have had a hell of a team, which I did.
MODERATOR: We would like to thank Coach Calipari for joining us in the main interview room.
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