John Calipari plans to use a two-platoon system when UK opens the season in November. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When the Wizard of Westwood talked, you listened. When John Wooden, arguably the king of college basketball coaches and the architect of one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports, offered advice, you took it.
John Calipari did so in 2010 after his first season at Kentucky when he called the late UCLA coach to ask him about his team. Wooden told Coach Cal that that he played too many guys. He advised Calipari to play six, seven or eight guys - at most - in his rotation.
And so for the next few years at UK, Coach Cal heeded Wooden's advice and played a small rotation.
In the 2010-11 season, Calipari's first team after that phone call, just six guys averaged double-figure minutes. The next year - Kentucky's national championship season - only six guys played more than 12 minutes a game.
The rotation has slightly expanded over the last two seasons with seven or eight guys getting significant minutes, but Coach Cal, at least during his time at UK, has never been one to unload his bench. Yanking five guys at one time when a he saw something he didn't like just wasn't Calipari's style.
"All kinds of ways of doing this," Coach Cal said last season.
It's just a big rotation wasn't one of them.
But if you've watched Calipari enough during his time at UK and studied his on-court philosophies, the one thing you may have noticed is that he has no set-in-stone philosophy. Sure, from a recruiting standpoint, he's labeled as the coach who perfected the Dribble Drive Motion Offense, but how many times in Calipari's five seasons in Lexington have you actually seen his teams run the Dribble Drive?
Instead of sticking to one style, Calipari has adjusted his style to fit the needs of his teams. He likes to play to his players' strengths.
In 2010, with a team that Coach Cal has said wasn't a great executing group, he did a lot of posting up with bigs like DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton. The following year, with Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Josh Harrellson starring in the offense, the strength of the team was hand-offs. The title team was a strong pick-and-roll group.
The point is, the best description of Calipari's coaching style is that he has no coaching style. If one had to label his method, it's his adaptability. He changes to fit what best suits his team.
That brings us back to that conversation with Wooden.
When Calipari had that conversation with the legendary coach four years ago, he adapted the notion because it worked for those particular teams. With so much roster turnover due to the NBA Draft every year, Coach Cal's teams, while supremely talented, weren't overly deep.
And then this last offseason happened and the model was blown up.
A perfect storm that featured a disappointing regular season, a magical run to the national championship game and continued success on the recruiting trail has created an unlikely scenario for the 2014-15 season. When players who undoubtedly could have gone in the NBA Draft announced they were coming back to join another heralded recruiting class, it created unparalleled depth.
Coach Cal not only had a starting lineup of McDonald's All-Americans, he essentially had two rotations of Burger Boys at his disposal.
So, as he rhetorically asked himself in a post on CoachCal.com in the middle of September, how does everybody eat when so many want to sit at the dinner table? How does he keep 12 guys who are all capable of playing and making an impact happy?
Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics
The trip to the Bahamas may have provided the answer.
Going against everything he's ever done as the coach at Kentucky, Calipari and his assistants employed a two-platoon system comprised mainly of 10 players (remember, Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles were unavailable because of offseason procedures).
"The players are bought into it," Coach Cal said in a preseason roundtable interview with local reporters last month. "They liked it. They all thought it was terrific."
How could they not?
With the exception of a couple late-game situations where a player or two stayed on the floor, the coaching staff stuck with the same two teams and split the minutes almost dead even. Whenever a TV timeout would roll around - every four minutes - no matter how well the unit on the floor was playing, it was out with one platoon and in with the next.
Perhaps more surprising than Calipari's persistence to stick with the two-platoon look throughout the trip was just how well the system actually worked.
The Wildcats overwhelmed their three professional opponents with talent, depth and a constant motor. Aware they would play just four minutes at a time, the players seemed to play at a high level at all times, making it harder for the thinner rosters and older players to keep up.
"It just showed how much talent we have," Andrew Harrison said. "From the first group to the second group, it showed different people are better at different things and stuff like that. It was a great concept. I liked it."
UK won its first five games by an average of 20.2 points. The Cats' only loss was in the final game against the Dominican Republic national team when legs were tired and minds were set on returning home. And oh, by the way, that Dominican team, which beat Kentucky on a buzzer beater, went on to the round of 16 just a few weeks later at the FIBA World Cup.
The success of the two-platoon system in the Bahamas turned what looked to be nothing more than preseason experiment into the regular-season model for 2014-15. As Calipari outlined in that post on this website a few weeks ago and confirmed on Monday at a tip-off luncheon in Louisville, he's now dead set on using it and making this a "watershed" year at Kentucky.
In his sixth year at UK, Coach Cal is out to prove that this many talented guys can play together, sacrifice their minutes for one other, win, and still benefit personally. If it works, Calipari wrote, "There will be no going back. No player will ever worry about who else is in the program or who may stay."
"It's never been done before where the players have benefited," Coach Cal said last month. "It's been done where the program's benefited and the coaches benefited, but it's never been done before where players benefited. That's the challenge that we'll have. I think that if you can get two groups that are balanced yet good enough, we can do it."
Legendary coach coach Dean Smith ran a version of the platoon system at North Carolina, though his method was slightly different. Smith stuck with a seven- or eight-man rotation, but he would bring in what he called his "blue team" for occasional five-minute stretches.
What Calipari is trying to do, even he hasn't done it before, so he pleaded for patience with the fan base on Monday.
"Listen, folks, I have never coached this way," Coach Cal said. "I haven't. But I'm going to. And I'm studying and I'm doing everything I can to make this work so every one of these kids eats. And it's not going to be easy."
Calipari has fallen in love with the two-platoon system because of its versatility and its ability to include guys who have all earned the right to play.
"I'd love to play that way because it includes 10 guys, and really it includes all 12 because even the two that are left, you're in the rotation of injury, somebody getting hurt," he said. "If a guard's not playing well, you're in. If a big's not playing well, you're in. So everybody is into the rotation."
The issue going forward becomes how the players will handle what Calipari has called the "clutter of the ego."
How will players who started and played 30 minutes a game last season handle 20 minutes a game this year? How will five-star freshmen react to coming off the bench and playing 17 or 18 minutes instead of the 25 to 30 they may have gotten at another school? What happens when a player who is capable of scoring 25 in any given night is only getting five or six shots a game? What about when people outside the team circle start chirping about how someone should be getting more of this and more of that?
Inevitably, those things are going to come up during the season.
Calipari and the Cats will likely have to deal with at least some of those issues as the season wears on. It's how they deal with them that could determine the outcome of the year and pave the way for that watershed moment Coach Cal is hoping for.
"You have to sit back and say there are two things: I want to win a championship and I want to be drafted in the highest position I can be. Can that all happen two platooning? Yes, it can, but it'll be a challenge," Calipari said. "No one has ever done it."
One thing Coach Cal and his staff will stress with the team to get it to buy into the two-platoon concept is the efficiency of it.
"Does Michael Jordan in a 40-minute game really have to be out there 32 minutes to show you he can play? Or LeBron (James) or (Carmelo) Anthony?" Calipari said. "You're watching this USA team (at the FIBA World Cup), guys are getting 21, 20 minutes, and you know who can play, who the better players are."
To get his guys to understand that you don't need to play a full game to show NBA scouts what you are capable of, the coaching staff will provide the players with stats that show what their averages would be if they played 34 minutes a game.
Why not 40? Because, as Coach Cal explained, even the best players in the country only play between 32 and 34 minutes.
"For 20 minutes you just play and if doesn't work I'm saying it's (my fault) anyway," Calipari said.
When the Bahamas statistics are translated to a 34-minute outing, the numbers are pretty staggering.
To this point, the players have bought in. Each individual player met with Coach Cal after the Bahamas trip and said he liked the system.
"This is a team that each guy is comfortable in their own skin, which means they don't have to be jealous, they don't have to be resentful," Calipari said. "They just, I'm happy with how I'm playing and happy with how he's playing."
If anything, Calipari said, playing 20 minutes a game as opposed to 35 boosts the numbers because some guys can't play at that high of a level for that long. At 20, they can.
"The clutter is going to say, 'Ah, you can't prove yourself in 20.' Well, some guys need 35 minutes to play 20," Calipari said.
What UK didn't reveal in the Bahamas - with the exception of a couple of late-game situations - is how the two-platoon system could mix and match different players. By and large, the two platoons in the Bahamas stayed the same through all six games, but Calipari said that might not be the case in the regular season.
"You've got to have a team that, say someone's really hurting us in a zone and we say, 'OK, we're putting our best shooting team in,' so we're mixing it up," Calipari said. "Well, you practice that way. It's not like you just did it in that game. What about a team, we get down, we're just playing bad and we just want a catch-up team in there? What would that catch-up team be? Because you've got to both defend and score. What would a team look like if you just wanted it to be a great defensive team? Would it be Willie, Marcus Lee and another big and two guards who are all guarding? What would that team be? What if you needed another pressing team? Who would your best pressing team be? And that may be your catch-up team. So all that stuff will be decided as we practice. I don't even know what the groupings would be."
Adding Cauley-Stein and Lyles into the two-platoon mix makes it seem like the possibilities are endless.
"You can play Willie and then could have Alex staying at four or Trey Lyles staying at four," Calipari said. "With a big, you could have Willie there with Karl, who can shoot it better, and Marcus Lee. How about that team? Now all of a sudden it's nutty."
Over the next three days, we'll post a transcript of John Calipari's preseason media roundtable in three parts. To start with, Coach Cal talks preseason expectations, the platoon system and the Bahamas trip.
Are the two injured guys, are they back doing everything that you want them to do now? "Willie's back. He played the other day and looked really good. A couple of the guys said to me, 'We forgot how good he was.' And Trey, I watched him go through a workout, and it's just, he probably needs more time. So he's not playing and not fully engaged yet, but he is going through what I would say is, without being able to play up and down as hard as he can go, that's what he's doing."
With so many guys back this year, do you feel like you're better prepared to deal with the hype and the expectations than maybe they were last year when all the 40-0 talk started? "Well, more prepared for a lot of stuff. You saw it in the Bahamas. Like, how did they--you've never seen one of my teams look that far advanced. Why? Because I've had a new team every year. So now all of a sudden you have the majority of your guys coming back. Now you could say, 'This kid looked good, that kid--' but we looked like a team, and that's a big part of those guys coming back, handling all that, knowing the anxiety of knowing why they're training the way they are. It's made it all easier. And then the freshmen can kind of get in line and follow, which is what's happening."
How much does it help individually having guys come back that are on a mission to finish unfinished business and does that help to keep the motivated? "Yeah, and they want to win. They know they need each other because they went through it last year where you start and you're more into your own stuff and then all of a sudden you look and it's not going real good and then you start worrying about everyone else and your stuff gets better." What do you see are the pros and cons of platooning and would you consider that during the season? "Yeah. I mean, it's never been done before where the players have benefited. It's been done where the program's benefited and the coaches benefited, but it's never been done before where players benefited. That's the challenge that we'll have. I think that if you can get two groups that are balanced yet good enough, we can do it. We have some time. We have to see. I'd love to play that way because it includes 10 guys, and really it includes all 12 because even the two that are left, you're in the rotation of injury, somebody getting hurt. If a guard's not playing well, you're in. If a big's not playing well, you're in. So everybody is into the rotation. The players are bought into it. They liked it. They all thought it was terrific. The biggest thing will be the clutter that will circle, which (is) the clutter of the ego and all the other things. But we have a couple things I'm going to do to try to make it clearer, you know, how they're playing. One thing I would say is, does Michael Jordan in a 40-minute game really have to be out there 32 minutes to show you he can play? Or LeBron or Anthony? You're watching this USA team, guys are getting 21, 20 minutes, and you know who can play, who the better players are. And the question is the clutter of the ego. And then you have to sit back and say there are two things: I want to win a championship and I want to be drafted in the highest position I can be. Can that all happen two platooning? Yes, it can, but it'll be a challenge. No one has ever done it. I'm going to say it again. People have done it, but not where the players benefited."
How much of that is your responsibility to manage and how much responsibility do they have on themselves to deal with it? "The one thing I said to them - and there was no reason to say it because they were all (into it) - we came back and I kind of had the staff break down what they saw and then I met individually with each guy about their own, what they thought about what they learned about themselves and what they saw with our team, how did they like two platooning, that kind of stuff. My point is, I can have a seven- or eight-man rotation and some of you may really like it unless you're not in the seven- or eight-man rotation. And then you would hope we're two platooning. And who the heck knows who would be in that seven-, eight-man rotation with the guys we have. So the best thing they can do is keep challenging each other and let us figure out all that stuff. But they've been good with that. This is a team that each guy is comfortable in their own skin, which means they don't have to be jealous, they don't have to be resentful. They just--I'm happy with how I'm playing and happy with how he's playing. I'm happy for him; he's playing good."
You've said many times that people like John Wooden told you that you're playing too many guys. Does the platoon system fly in the face of that? "It does, but again, somebody said that, 'Well, Dean Smith played the platoons.' He did, but he did it different. What he did was he played seven guys and then he brought five of the whatever you want to call them - I can't remember what he called them (reporter: the blue team) - they came in. So he played 12 that way to make sure he got everybody minutes. And again, he was so far ahead of his time when you think about some of the stuff he did. He was the first guy to say, 'When it's the season it's about us, when the season is over it's about each individual.' He's the first guy to tell the old guys they need to leave early. He was ahead of his time in all the stuff he did."
In the Bahamas it seemed like this group is really close in terms of the entire group hanging out. Do you think that stuff really matters? "Oh yeah, absolutely does. The best NBA teams, that's what happens. They go on the road and that's what they'll do. They'll go to a movie, they go out to dinner and they'll go in mass - the best NBA teams. The bad teams, everybody breaks up and goes their own way and gets on the road and you don't see the guy until the game starts. The good ones don't. They know we got to just be together and be about each other and this what we're doing. So yeah, no, that will help. These guys play pickup five, six nights a week. That's important. And you go like, 'What's important with that?' We're not doing it. They're doing it themselves and they all like to compete and play, which is a big deal. I've been on teams here that we had to call to get them to play pickup and you had some guys that were, you know. But it's tough for those guys as they leave us to really do well at that next level. This, if you're not really into this, it's hard. So that's a big thing. The thing they've got to learn as they're playing pick-up is, we've put in a couple rules so that we can establish some things that will be habits when they're playing, which is get the ball across the half court in three to four seconds. Have a manager there, it's a turnover on a miss or make if the ball doesn't cross half court in three or four seconds. Alright, well you play that way, everyone's got to cross the court in five seconds. If the wing isn't looking at you, throw the ball off the back of his head so he'll start looking at you. And then, after you get it up there, I don't really care what you do; it's pickup. I just want you to get it up there. Trying to create that habit, on a miss or make, the ball goes. Now, we talked as a staff and I talked to the guys a few nights ago, we didn't do anything defensively and won't until October. So before the Bahamas, other than playing against ourselves, we told them pick up and play full court. Well, what did we teach them? Pick up and play your man. If somebody leaves, then try to rotate a bit, figure it out on the run. We told them to force down pick-and-rolls. We did not teach them how to do it. We didn't teach. We just said if a guy tries pick-and-roll, forces them down the side. So by doing none of that, we ended up 40 percent, holding those teams 28 (percent) from the 3, plus-whatever rebounding. We were not a bad defensive team and we taught nothing. So again, playing against each other they'll get better defensively if I can get them to create habits of getting the ball up the court quickly. And then let them, maybe in another week or so, 'OK, the point guard, if he hits, just make sure you go through every time,' something we didn't do in the Bahamas that I think we'll do some."
Watching those guys, it seems like each of those five-man units had become super comfortable with each other. There was a chemistry there and obviously that helps in one regard. But when you get to a crunch-time situation and you pull a couple off one team and put in a few from another team, do you worry about the chemistry? "No. You have to practice that way. You've got to have - and we've talked about it as a group - I said you've got to have a team that, say someone's really hurting us in a zone and we say, 'OK, we're putting our best shooting team in.' So we're mixing it up. Well, you practice that way. it's not like you just did it in that game. What about a team, we get down, we're just playing bad and we just want a catch-up team in there? What would that catch-up team be? Because you've got to both defend and score. What would a team look like if you just wanted it to be a great defensive team? Would it be Willie, Marcus Lee and another big and two guards who are all guarding? What would that team be? What if you needed another pressing team? Who would your best pressing team be? And that may be your catch-up team. So all that stuff will be decided as we practice. I don't even know what the groupings would be. Aaron and Andrew, yesterday in the pickup games, they were on opposite teams. So I told those two, 'Don't always play with each other. Play opposite.' You don't want to be labeled that you have to be on the same team. You've had guys like that before. It hurts them. It's not helping you; it hurts you.' So they're playing opposite of each other. Like I said, until we start practicing, I liked what I saw, I liked that you could just swamp people, just keep coming. I liked the fact that the numbers were really good for 20 minutes. And then we'll do some things so that people will know what their numbers relate to if they played 34 minutes. You have a team full of guys playing 20, what would that relate to if they're playing 34 minutes? Basically it's all about efficiency. Have that stat sheet."
Is it crazy to you that, two years removed from Brian Long guarding Nerlens Noel in practice, you're talking about catch-up teams and my shooting teams and zone teams? "Yeah, but did I ever plan on six guys leaving in one year? No. So I had to deal with it. Did we plan on five guys leaving after our first year? No. So all of a sudden it changed the whole direction of the program. Now all of a sudden we had guys come back that I thought would never come back. Well, now we've got to make it work. So that's part of how this is--it's not easy on anybody, but at the end of the day I don't think it's a bad problem. It's probably a good problem."
How are this year's freshmen different from last year's freshmen? "I don't know if they do. I would say on a whole they're probably in better condition, but I could say that because of the Bahamas trip. They're probably more advanced of how we're going to play. They're probably able to play looser because they know it's not going to be on them. It's pretty good to know that--how about five freshmen, anybody returning had a great experience in the NIT at Robert Morris? Now all of a sudden you've got a team full of guys that played in the championship game and now you're coming back and watching and learning. If you can compete with them, you start building your own confidence. This guy, I can compete with this guy. It's a good thing."
Cal you mentioned some things about, statistically, and I wonder, what's your relationship with analytics? Are you looking at any more of it? Are you looking at numbers more than you used to? "Look, there's the guy that's never played, coached or done anything but look at numbers and tell you what your team should look like. Beat it. Then there's the guy, the old-school guy, that never looked at a number, doesn't know how to open a computer, doesn't know how to Twitter, Facebook - which would be me -- and he doesn't want to look at numbers. You got to--it's both. The numbers that are good for us are for the players to see what they're accomplishing, in my mind. And it's good for everyone else to see what those numbers say. That's good for them to see what those numbers say, but the reality of it is we could all watch a game and if you have any feel for the game at all you could say he played a great game even if the numbers said he played OK. Yeah, but here's what those numbers don't take into account. I mean we've got things that we'll do that are nonnegotiable that there's no analytic that can do it. They don't have one invented, so there's numbers of things we take. But, if I'm going to two platoon, the numbers will matter and the efficiency numbers, numbers translated into 34 minutes - now, why do you think I'd say 34 minutes and not 40? (Reporter: Nobody plays 40.) Yeah, and if I did 40, everybody in the country could say, 'Yeah, but if I made my guy do 40 minutes.' So most teams, if you're going to play between 32 and 34 minutes - the best players in the country (play those minutes) so every one of our guys gets rated to 34 minutes - what do those numbers mean?"
Kentucky's weekly media schedule didn't call for Mark Stoops to speak after practice until Thursday, but the UK head coach made an exception on Tuesday.
Stoops commented on the suspension of Dorian Baker, Drew Barker, Tymere Dubose and Stanley Williams stemming from an on-campus incident on Sunday night. He made it clear their actions were unacceptable, but was sure they were a departure from the character of the four true freshmen.
"We have some good kids that used poor judgment, that made a mistake," Stoops said. "They know they made a mistake and they're being held accountable for it. We tried to address it quickly and decisive. They were wrong. And, like I said, they were remorseful. They realize it now."
Stoops first learned the players were involved in the incident minutes before his weekly press conference on Monday. After gathering facts, the decision to suspend them was announced just hours later.
"We do like we try to do whether it's a win, a loss or a mistake or anything good or bad," Stoops said. "We hit it right on, right in the face. We tell them what's going on and what they're accountability's going to be both publicly and to their team."
Beyond the public suspension, the matter was addressed internally within the team, according to Stoops. He said Wildcats now had some "closure" on the issue.
"We have expectations," Stoops said. "We have core values within our program. We try to live them each and every day. We understand that we're not perfect, just like somebody within our family. We made a mistake. They're going to be held accountable and we'll move on."
For UK, moving on means preparing for a stiff test against South Carolina on Saturday evening. The suspensions caused a minor distraction on Monday, but nothing to derail their game-week work.
"We're fine," Stoops said. "We're good. We had a great day Sunday of coaches prepping and we had a good day all day Monday."
Tuesday wasn't quite as good, as Stoops described the late-afternoon practice as just "OK." UK will have to improve with the Gamecocks (3-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) waiting.
South Carolina has played arguably the toughest schedule in the country to this point, scoring wins over Georgia, East Carolina and Vanderbilt and losing to Texas A&M and Missouri. The Gamecocks led 20-7 in the fourth quarter last weekend against Missouri, but gave up 14 unanswered in the final seven minutes to lose 21-20.
The Gamecocks' performance, however, was still impressive to the offensive coordinator tasked with preparing for them.
"Got a good football team rolling in here on Saturday night; they'll be a hungry football team," Neal Brown said. "I'm impressed, really impressed with what they did on Saturday night. I watched the TV, watched it live and then watching it on coaches' film. They held a very good Missouri offense to ballpark 280 yards, 150 pass and 130 rushing. Very impressive. They've gotten better."
It was an NFL week 4 that saw four wins, five losses, and two bye weeks between the sport's 11 UK alumni. Two Wildcat receivers found their way into the end zone, ensuring victories for their teams under must-win circumstances. Let's see how they and a few other headliners did.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers Former First-Team All-American Randall Cobb had a Sunday to remember. In a 38-17 win over the Chicago Bears, Cobb caught seven passes for a team-high 113 yards. He also secured two touchdown receptions, bringing Cobb's total to five on the season. Fellow Kentucky alumnus and Packers teammate Tim Masthay failed to see the field in only the second game without a punt in NFL history.
Stevie Johnson | #13 WR | San Francisco 49ers Stevie Johnson's lone Week 4 reception was an acrobatic 12-yard touchdown catch midway through the third quarter to bring his team within one point. The grab was Johnson's first-ever TD as a 49er, aiding his team in a 26-21 victory over the previously unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles.
Avery Williamson | #54 LB | Tennessee Titans Tennessee rookie linebacker Avery Williamson recorded seven combined tackles -- the most of his young career -- as well as a career-high six solo tackles Sunday. However, the Titans were blown out by the Indianapolis Colts, 17-41.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 LB | Tennessee Titans Despite his team losing by at least 24 points for the second consecutive week, Wesley Woodyard was able to shine defensively on the road in Indianapolis. The seven-year NFL veteran's afternoon was highlighted by the sixth interception of his professional career. Woodyard also tallied nine combined tackles and six solo tackles in the Titans' loss.
A lack of energy has never been a problem for John Calipari.
Even coping with the unique demands of coaching at Kentucky, Calipari is always ready and raring to go for the next practice, the next recruiting visit, the next event. But with the start of the 2014-15 season approaching, something has Coach Cal even more fired up than usual.
This two-platoon thing you've heard so much about? It's really happening.
"I'm doing things I've never done as a coach," Calipari said. "And I'll be honest with you, can you tell I'm excited about it? Like, this has got me stirred."
Calipari's excitement was plain to see and hear on Monday as he spoke at the annual Wildcat Tipoff Luncheon hosted by the Greater Louisville UK Alumni Club, where he was joined by UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell.
Coach Cal didn't speak at length about how the two-platoon system will work - there will be plenty of time for that when games begin - but he did reveal his reasoning for it. In short, it's the next step in the evolution of his players-first philosophy.
"If it's not about those guys, we're playing eight of these guys and those other two or three, you're out," Calipari said. "But if we're about them and all of them, this is the only way you can do it. Well, it's never been done before. Well, it's going to be done now."
Breaking new ground, however, will bring growing pains. Coach Cal is ready for them and he did his best to prepare the more than 1,000 in attendance on Monday.
"We have a chance of being really good, but we're doing it a different way," Calipari said. "What we do early may be at the expense of winning some games making sure we're figuring this out. And if that happens, I'm telling you, I'll be fine with it. You won't, but I will be fine with it."
Ultimately, the people who matter most to the success of the two-platoon system are the players, not the fans or even Calipari. Fortunately, Coach Cal has some recent past experience to call on in guiding them through the challenge, different as this one may be.
"How in the world do you get McDonald's All-Americans to sacrifice and play for each other?" Calipari said. "And how do you get them to do that as freshmen? Would you say you'd like to know? Because I'm asking it everywhere. They trust we have their back and their best interest so they will share and they will sacrifice for each other because we have their back, we have their best interest."
Calipari confirmed UK will start the season using the platoon system in the same way as on the Big Blue Bahamas tour, but he knows he'll need to be ready to change on the fly.
"What happens at the end of the season if it's not quite happening the way that we want?" Calipari said. "We can make adjustments. Doc Rivers told me, 'What if one of the guys needs a few more minutes a half? You're going to have to give it to them, Cal.' I said, 'I know that.' So if two guys are playing a little bit better, we'll give them a little bit more minutes."
Calipari spoke first on Monday, a departure from tradition in past years at the event. With a recruit in town, he had to get back to Lexington in short order, a fact Mitchell used to playfully jab his good friend.
"Cal stole one of my oldest tricks in the book, about recruiting," Mitchell said. "The recruiting trick. Gotta leave, gotta leave. Got a big recruit coming."
Once Mitchell moved on from making the sellout crowd laugh, he expressed similar optimism about his own team.
"This season, I think we have a great opportunity to have a good team," Mitchell said. "... I think we can land in a really, really great spot and I'm excited to see what comes of this team and this 2014-15 edition."
Coming off its first Southeastern Conference win in three years, the Kentucky football team is beginning to generate an aura of excitement not seen around these parts in years. But with said recent success comes mounting challenges.
The stakes for the 3-1 (1-1 SEC) Wildcats only ratchet up from here, beginning with a visit from South Carolina on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on SEC Network.
The Gamecocks (3-2, 2-2 SEC) have played one of the toughest schedules in the country, with a win over No. 13 Georgia in Week 3 as proof of the talent of Steve Spurrier's team.
Mark Stoops is fully embracing, but still wary of, the challenges that go along with trying to win two straight games in the nation's toughest conference.
As happy he was with his team -- especially his defense -- in delivering his first SEC win as a head coach over Vanderbilt last Saturday, he's looking to improve on multiple fronts.
"We're far from where we want to be, but we are drastically improved on fundamentally how to play football," Stoops said. "I think we need to continue to work on that."
Playing fundamental football was a major theme of Stoops' Monday lunchtime press conference, where he previewed Saturday's matchup with the Gamecocks.
"A big part of (Kentucky's defensive improvement this season) is just fundamentally playing better," Stoops said. "That's what I've always prided myself on is teaching the guys how to play. ... Our team is starting to get that at times, but it comes down to being a fundamental football team on both sides of the ball and on special teams.
"We just need to continue to improve and worry about ourselves and get better at what we're trying to do."
One area the Wildcats will look to improve is on offense.
While UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown had plenty to be happy about -- namely a 13-play, 99-yard touchdown drive to open the game, a 66-yard scoring drive to end the half and 201 passing yards for quarterback Patrick Towles -- a game in which UK's defense allowed its fewest yards in a SEC game since 1996 was still closer than it may have needed to be.
The Wildcats put 17 points on the board in total, which it should be said was enough to win by double digits, but UK's head coach was eager to point out areas where his team can improve.
"We got behind the chains with certain things, you know," Stoops said. "Whether it be a fumble or a penalty and just silly things, just got behind the chains, and we missed some shots. We had our opportunities, and we just missed them slightly. ... So we've just got to be more precise and execute better."
Stoops would also like his team to play sharper in front of the home fans, who have been coming out in bigger numbers of late and will have a chance of seeing UK go 4-0 at Commonwealth Stadium for the first time since 2008 on Saturday. A season-high 56,940 members of Big Blue Nation watched last Saturday's win, and UK will look to repay the favor with a strong showing this week in the season's first night game, and a blackout to boot.
"We're trying to play as best we can every week, no matter where it is," Stoops said. "You heard me talk about it a couple weeks ago. Sometimes we're playing some of our better football on the road at times. We've got to get back to playing the best we can here."
Kentucky began the bounce-back process on Friday night.
On the heels of back-to-back overtime defeats, the Wildcats took care of business in a 3-0 win over Mississippi State. Their mission for the weekend, however, was far from complete.
On Sunday, UK finished the job with a 2-1 win against Auburn.
"Pepperdine and Arkansas really stung," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "We needed to find a way to not only win two games, but win a game like this. This is exactly the kind of game that we've been letting get away from us. To play a great team like Auburn and such a well-coached team and to find a way says that there's something in us that we want to find a way to respond."
The game, as Lipsitz said, was hard-fought from start to finish, but UK came out on top. In doing so, the Cats (7-3-0, 2-1-0 Southeastern Conference) swept a crucial conference home weekend.
"We had to," Lipsitz said. "Sometimes your back is up against the wall and you have to find out who you are. When you fall, the question is, are you going to continue to fall or are you getting up?"
UK claimed a first-half lead when Jade Klump scored her fifth goal off a rebound from a shot by Arin Gilliland. It was the second goal the Cats scored off a loose ball in the box this weekend.
"It's not an accident," Lipsitz said. "We do a lot of drills that work on that."
But less than three minutes later, the Tigers (6-4-1, 0-2-1 SEC) responded with a game-tying goal. For the next 36 minutes the two teams would battle to a standstill before Zoe Swift headed in a Cara Ledman corner kick that Alex Carter served back in front of the net.
"I was wide open," Swift said. "I was like, 'If I miss, Jon's going to yell at me.' No, I'm just kidding. I saw I had to put it in the goal, do the details that we talk about in practice."
Open as she may have been, Swift delivered on a week of hard work with the game-winning goal.
"Zoe's been in a little bit of a lull right now and she's very hard on herself," Lipsitz said. "So we've been building her up and saying, 'Look, we know you can do this,' but it comes from work, it comes from doing the basics and she's really had an amazing week of training. I'm not surprised at all that she got one."
UK wasn't surprised to win either, but the Tigers - a "great team," according to Lipsitz - didn't make it easy. In the tougher moments, the Cats remembered they were playing for something bigger on Sunday.
"We just knew that Auburn was a great team and we've been training hard all week," Klump said. "We really enjoyed battling against them, but this was a Kick Cancer Match so we really wanted to come out and battle like those who have battled with cancer."
As part of the annual Kick Cancer Match, UK wore special Nike Volt jerseys that will be auctioned off to benefit the Dance Blue Clinic at the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital. The team also honored cancer sufferers by placing yellow roses on the goal line after the game.
The postgame ceremony was the second of the night, as UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and Honda's manager of corporate community relations Erik Wedin were in attendance to present Arin Gilliland with the Honda Inspiration Award.
Entering the weekend, Lipsitz didn't hide from the importance of games against Mississippi State and Auburn to his team. What happened after the game served as a reminder that there are more important things still.
"Win or lose, that is secondary," Lipsitz said. "The game is secondary."
Mark Stoops celebrates his first SEC win with Stanley "Boom" Williams. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops and Neal Brown had just watched the same game.
The perspectives of the Kentucky head coach and offensive coordinator couldn't have been more different.
"That was a thing of beauty," Stoops said. "For a defensive guy, it was."
"Obviously not a thing of beauty on offense, without question," Brown said.
UK had just toppled Vanderbilt, 17-7. The victory came in spite of a sputtering second half by the Wildcat offense and primarily because of a defense that dominated the Commodores (1-4, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) from start to finish. It's understandable, then, that Stoops and Brown saw the game so differently.
What they shared was joy in their first SEC win together and the first for Kentucky (3-1, 1-1 SEC) since 2011.
"It's great to get a victory," Stoops said. "It was nice to see our team fight through adversity. It wasn't easy. We had to dig in. We knew it wasn't going to be easy to come away with a victory."
"The positive thing is we did overcome it and win the game," Brown said. "And we're going to enjoy it. It's hard to win an SEC game. ... We're going to be excited about it and then we're going to get this stuff fixed and worry about getting better tomorrow."
The UK defense will try to improve starting on Sunday as well, but the Cats will be hard pressed to outdo their performance on Saturday.
UK didn't allow a single point to the Commodore offense and limited Vanderbilt to eight first downs and 139 total yards, the fewest the Cats have allowed in an SEC game since 1996. The Cats applied constant pressure on Wade Freebeck, sacking the true freshman quarterback four times and hitting him many more.
"Our guys have right now have an attitude and a mentality and a confidence about them, and that goes a long ways," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "These guys are playing very hard and playing together and they really showed it today and I'm very proud of them."
Entering the season and led by seniors Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, the UK defenders styled themselves the "Bad Boys." Stoops won't ever lead a charge to print t-shirts bearing the nickname, but he also can't argue with the results after the Cats didn't allow a touchdown on defense for the fourth straight game.
"I like the way they're playing," Stoops said. "I like their attitude, and they mean well, and I've said it, they've got a good heart and they played with a good mind today. You play with a good mind and a good heart, you got a good chance to play good defense."
If you ask Dupree - who tallied 1.5 sacks in the win - that new mentality has more to do with Stoops and his staff than the Bad Boys moniker. Dupree played on a 2011 defense led Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy that had some special moments - including in that last SEC win over Tennessee - but this 2014 group is at another level because of its belief and balance.
"The difference I see between us and my freshman year is the will to make plays," Dupree said. "Everyone's playing together. It's not just me making plays; it's not Z making plays."
That belief carried the Cats even though the second half brought plenty of moments that made the 59,940 fans in Commonwealth Stadium groan.
UK raced out to a 7-0 lead after a defensive hold and a clinical 99-yard touchdown drive capped by a 20-yard scoring strike from Patrick Towles to Ryan Timmons. Towles completed 9-of-9 passes on the drive and his next two as well, but then made his biggest mistake of the season so far in the shadow of his own goalposts. Looking left, Towles made the wrong read and threw in the flat. Darrius Sims jumped the route and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown.
Towles would bounce back, eventually leading a scoring drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown on a quarterback sneak in the closing seconds of the first half to stake UK to a 17-7 lead. But in the second half, Towles held the ball too long too often and fumbled twice in addition to another in the first half.
"It's just a combination of sweat and just gripping the ball too tight," Towles said. "I tend to try to fit balls in windows and grip the ball too tight and it just slips out of my hands. That's on me. That shouldn't happen. It's inexcusable and it won't happen again."
Those miscues and a Demarco Robinson muffed punt put the defense in perilous positions, as Vanderbilt began three fourth-quarter drives in UK territory. The Wildcat defense, however, was undeterred. Relying on blitzes and interceptions by A.J. Stamps, Marcus McWilson and Ashely Lowery, UK rarely bent and never broke.
"We were able to finish plays, which we've been harping on all offseason, and take advantage of opportunities to get turnovers," Eliot said. "I was very excited about their play this afternoon."
The Cats were opportunistic in moments when they wilted during that conference losing streak. Once again, Dupree credits the UK staff.
"I think it's a different mindset Coach Stoops has just brought to the team," Dupree said. "The last couple years, people gave up in certain situations. When adversity hit, we went the other way. But now we run to the war."
For all UK's defensive dominance, the 10-point margin remained unchanged throughout the second half. The Cats couldn't deliver the knockout blow until the game's final drive, which started with a 10-yard run by Braylon Heard to bring his game-high total to 62. From there, Brown went to the Wildcat formation for eight straight plays.
Jojo Kemp played sparingly before then, but carried seven times in eight plays - handing to Timmons on the other for no gain - and gained all 60 of his rushing yards to run out the clock.
"The worst thing we could have done once it was very clear that we were struggling and that Patrick was struggling was to lose the game, is to really do something, turn the ball over - which we tried, alright - but really to lose the game and try to force-feed something that we weren't doing very well," Brown said.
Facing No. 13 South Carolina next Saturday the Cats will surely need more out of their offense and Towles specifically, but 17 points were enough to trigger a raucous celebration following the win over Vanderbilt. Towles described the volume of the locker-room scene as a "12" on a 1-10 scale. It likely hit a fever pitch when Stoops broke out his dancing shoes for his team for the first time.
Dupree called his coach a "horrible" dancer, but Stoops fortunately has other things going for him.
"He usually jumps up and down (after wins), but this time he tried to do a little dance move," Dupree said. "He's a great coach though."
When the Kentucky took the field Friday night, the Wildcats weren't thinking about the heartbreak they felt last week in back-to-back overtime losses to Pepperdine and Arkansas.
All that mattered now was bouncing back and taking care of business. The Cats were intently focused on the one thing head coach Jon Lipsitz preached to his team all week in practice.
"We've just sort of gone back to the basics, talking about details," Lipsitz said.
Lipsitz's team took the message to heart, evidenced by a 3-0 victory over conference foe Mississippi State at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex. For Kentucky senior Arin Gilliland, straying away from the basics was exactly what caused the Wildcats to go winless in their previous two matches in spite of mostly solid play in both..
"We're keeping people hanging in the game, we're not doing the details, we're not getting there pressing the ball, and we're not finishing goals that we should be finishing," Gilliland said. "Those are details--those are little things. Today, we came out, we did the basics. To play soccer, you have to do the basics first, and soccer will come. We did that today. (Lipsitz) was right, once again."
Once Gilliland and her teammates implemented Lipsitz's game plan, results quickly followed. Gilliland, a Lexington native, scored her fifth goal of the season off of a perfectly placed cross by Cara Ledman at the match's 52-minute mark.
"It was a great cross by Cara Ledman," Gilliland said. "Every time she crosses the ball, I know exactly where it's going. So, I got to position myself perfectly. That finishing is what we did all week. I did the basics. I stayed over the ball, finished through the goal, and results happened."
After controlling possession for the majority of Friday's game, Kentucky was able to stay composed on the way to its sixth win of the season. Wildcat junior Courtney Raetzman, who scored two of UK's three goals, echoed Lipsitz's back-to-basics mantra.
"What we really focus on is details and doing little things that a lot of other teams don't focus on as much," Raetzman said. "Going back to the basics, we need to keep that simple, and not try to do all these fancy things--like trying to get that game-winning pass or that amazing shot off. More like, we need to play and do the basics. From that, great things will happen."
The Wildcats (6-3-0, 1-1-0 SEC) hope to carry their momentum into Sunday's annual Kick Cancer Match with the Tigers of Auburn University.
"(Auburn is) a great team--very dynamic, very exciting, and very athletic," Lipsitz said. "They're young... and doing great. I'm not surprised that Coach (Karen) Hoppa has them playing well. It'll be a fantastic game, a great challenge and a great event. Obviously, it's a fundraiser for us (to raise money) for pediatric cancer research. We need all of Big Blue Nation here--number one, for a great cause, and as a secondary reason, to root us on."
With a bye week following a triple-overtime loss at Florida, Kentucky has had ample time to suffer a lapse in focus.
Just two days before a Saturday matchup with Vanderbilt, the Wildcats have shown no signs of any such lapse.
"So far, so good," head coach Mark Stoops said. "It's been a good week of practice. We had a good Thursday today. Guys seemed to be pretty locked in, energetic. So, looking forward to a good game here this weekend."
If anything, the Cats have gone the other way and ramped up the intensity before the Commodores come to town.
"Our coaches have been adamant about just handling our business and doing more this week, being more locked in, spending some extra time around here studying film and doing the little things," Stoops said. "So it seems like they've been very good around here. I hope they are when they leave. We have no reason but to be locked in and hungry for this game."
UK's practice on Thursday was a light one, continuing the coaching staff's new game-week plan of holding a walkthrough and meetings two days before game day and turning up the speed again on Friday. The change was designed to position the Cats to play faster on game day and to this point Stoops has been pleased with the results.
"It seemed to work so far, it really has," Stoops said. "We'll see. Each week is a different test, but I've been pleased. I've felt like we played fast and that was the objective. I felt like we were fresh and played fast in each game. In particular, going down to the Swamp with a big SEC test and playing in the three overtimes. I feel like it's given us what we want."