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Practice report: Walking through play installation

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John Calipari coached Kentucky to a 93-61 exhibition victory over Northwood on Thursday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) John Calipari coached Kentucky to a 93-61 exhibition victory over Northwood on Thursday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
On Friday afternoon - the day after the season's first exhibition - John Calipari ran his team through a practice of a little more than two hours with some individual work and film study from the victory over Northwood preceding it. I had a chance to watch the session from the men's basketball viewing deck at the Joe Craft Center.

My original plan was to write up a customary bullet-point practice report - the likes of which you have seen here and on over the past two years - but there was one 20-minute segment early in the practice that I thought deserved special attention. I'll have a few other quick hitters from a very interesting practice afterward, but I'm going to do my best to take you through the installation of two new offensive plays.

I am not going to get into specifics, but the two plays used screening action and movement off the ball to create scoring and passing opportunities for UK's point guard and shooting guard. Coach Cal started by walking the White team (Ryan Harrow, Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, Kyle Wiltjer and Nerlens Noel) through what he was asking them to do on each of the plays. He didn't waste any time, directing movement and passes and even acting things out on a few different occasions. The five players on White had to grasp the two different plays quickly, while the rest of the team paid close attention.

After just a few minutes explaining and demonstrating, White and Blue (Jarrod Polson, Julius Mays, Jon Hood, Twany Beckham and Willie Cauley-Stein) went to opposite sides of the court and ran the plays against no defense. Calipari stood at midcourt, shouting instructions and corrections. This process went on for just a few more minutes.

It was then time to go full speed. Blue and White went head-to-head with the drill being triggered by an intentionally missed shot by an assistant coach. It didn't get off to a great start, as the White team had to run an up-and-down-the-court suicide when Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin failed to communicate. One was supposed to crash the offensive glass while the other retreated on defense, but both stayed well beyond the arc instead.

Eventually, Blue and White got down to executing the two newly installed plays in a full-court setting, which I found very interesting. The goal of the drill was to practice the plays, but the players were doing it in the context of what basically amounted to a scrimmage. Rather than pounding the ball in the half-court and running the two plays repeatedly until the Wildcats mastered them, the drill included rebounding and fast breaks. This is what Coach Cal is talking about when he says his team is running throughout practice, and it's why UK is able to accomplish so much with shorter sessions.

Throughout the time the team spent working on the new plays, Calipari did most of the talking, but players weren't afraid to ask questions about their assignments. On one occasion, Willie Cauley-Stein dribbled when he wasn't supposed to and Calipari stopped the play. Cauley-Stein quickly asked for clarification, worried about the error he had just made. Before answering his question, Coach Cal made sure to point out he shouldn't apologize for that kind of mistake because "I just threw this at you."

Coach Cal would correct mistakes made within the framework of the new plays, but he didn't get angry with the players. What he did yell about was if any player failed to sprint the floor or didn't play physically. This gets back to the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable mistakes that I wrote about after the Northwood game.  Calipari is still in the process of teaching his young team how to play basketball, which means effort and good habits are much more important than execution or making shots.

Here are some other points of interest from Friday's practice:
  • Practice began with a light warm-up led by strength coach Mike Malone before Calipari took the floor. When Coach Cal did arrive, he pointed out a group of former players in the gym to watch practice after they visited the old Wildcat Lodge before it is demolished later this month. He directed his current players to introduce themselves to the group, which included Kyle Macy, Jay Shidler, Mike Phillips and Bo Lanter - father of new UK walk-on Tod Lanter.
  • Coach Cal's practices usually start with a full-court layup drill that progresses from one-man all the way to three-man groups, but one other drill was inserted before that one. Recognizing UK's trouble with offensive fouls against Northwood, the players rotated through an individual dribble, pass and layup exercise. Calipari wants to make sure the Cats are aware of the way teams will defend them and are able to jump stop to avoid offensive fouls. "The only way they can guard our drives is taking charges," said Coach Cal.
  • Defensive footwork is another major priority. Most UK practices feature a drill that calls on players to cross the entire width of the court doing lunges in a defensive stance, but it was emphasized even more than usual on Friday. Coach Cal made sure to point out that players should always step first with their outside feet to stay in front of the ball handler. The easiest way to get beat on the dribble is by getting your feet crossed up.
  • In the final minutes of practice over an hour after initially installing them, Coach Cal had the players once again work on the two aforementioned new plays. He not only wanted to test retention, but also do it when the Cats were mentally and physically tired.
  • It's not a surprise that players were tired, because the dreaded treadmill was whirring for a good portion of practice. The team went through a one-on-one rebounding drill in which the loser had to run 30 seconds on the fast-moving treadmill and it was once again on later as a potential penalty for mistakes.
  • To my untrained eyes, Noel stuck out. His conditioning has improved by leaps and bounds and the quickness of his hands is off the charts. He poked the ball away from unwitting teammates on countless occasions. Noel also dominated in the rebounding drill, not having to hit the treadmill once. Cauley-Stein was not so lucky, leading assistant Orland Antigua to joke, "Willie, what are you doing over here? You just left." All the while, Cauley-Stein wore a smile and showed little fatigue.
  • Calipari is typically hard on his point guards, but this year, he basically has two of them. He recognizes how important Harrow and Goodwin are to the success of his team and is asking a lot of them. Harrow has had his days when he has been unable to shake Calipari, but Friday was Goodwin's turn. To his credit, Goodwin often responded with good plays after taking his coach's criticism.
  • In my opinion, Goodwin had the most impressive moment of the practice, but it wasn't a dunk, pass or shot. At the end of an exhausting afternoon, Calipari announced penalties from the Northwood game. Based on the frequency with which players attacked the offensive and defensive glass, each was assigned a corresponding number of full-court suicides. Each suicide had to be completed within 34 seconds and Goodwin faced five of them. He completed his first three with Poythress and Wiltjer still running alongside him. He then finished his fourth, and while Poythress and Wiltjer took their allotted time to rest, Goodwin immediately set about running his final sprint with no break. With his teammates cheering him on, he finished his final suicide faster than any of his previous four.

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