John Calipari speaks to reporters gather for media day on Thursday afternoon. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari is nothing if not an idea man.
The trait extends to every facet of his position as head coach of Kentucky basketball, including his team's style of play. Some coaches find offensive and defensive systems and stand by them no matter the circumstances, but not Calipari.
His schedule, though, is hectic to say the least. If he's not on the road recruiting, he's spending time with his family or his team. If he's not coaching practice or a game, he's at a speaking engagement or advocating for a charitable cause.
Where then does he find the time to innovate?
"He's in a lot of planes," junior guard Jon Hood said at media day on Thursday.
This is Hood's fourth year under Calipari and he's noticed a trend. Whenever Coach Cal travels by air, he seems to come up with something new.
"He always seems to come back to us with, 'I was thinking about you while I was on the plane and this is what I thought,' " Hood said. "Every off day he'll go recruiting and he'll come back, say we have an off day Wednesday, he'll come back that Thursday with, 'Well, we're going to put this in now or we're going to change this.' "
In the estimation of Hood, Coach Cal's willingness to change is among his best - and most underrated - attributes.
Hood can remember when Calipari arrived in Lexington. Outside of his reputation as a recruiter, the buzz was about Coach Cal's vaunted dribble-drive motion offense, the style of play that unleashed Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans.
"Everybody thought, 'Oh, we're going to have this great new offense that we're going to run nonstop and that's just going to be the entire game is all this dribble drive stuff,' " Hood said.
Three-and-a-half years later, the dribble drive is still in many ways synonymous with Calipari. But in reality the Wildcats have deployed a more traditional attack, with pick and rolls, dribble handoffs and even post-ups.
"My freshman year we ran up and down the court and then at times we'd throw it into DeMarcus (Cousins) and let DeMarcus be DeMarcus," Hood said. "He's an animal, he always will be an animal and Patrick (Patterson) as well."
Even so, Coach Cal uses the dribble drive to great effect, even when his teams don't use it extensively in games. It's among the first things taught in early-season practices.
"All that does is teach you how to play basketball," Hood said. "That's it. You can't play in a system or run plays without knowing how to play basketball."
Just as importantly, the installation of the dribble drive gives Calipari a chance to learn about his team and get an accurate appraisal of its strengths and weaknesses. From there, he begins to shape a game plan around the Cats' strengths, whether it's Cousins in the post, Brandon Knight as a shooter or Marquis Teague in the pick and roll.
The strange thing is that he hasn't always been that way.
While most people fall into a routine as they age, Coach Cal is the opposite. He recalls his first few years as a head coach at Massachusetts. At that point, his basketball strategy was nothing more than a melting pot combining the things he had learned as a player and assistant.
"When I was at UMass, I'm going to be honest with you, five of those years, I had exactly the same lesson plan," Calipari said. "We were going to play, and we won a lot of games and day lot of good, kids did good, but we could have done better. I could have coached better."
Twenty-five years into his career as a head coach, Calipari is quite different. As he prepares to coach a team that returns just one major contributor from the group that won a national championship in 2011-12 (Kyle Wiltjer), he has an idea of how things are going to start, but little beyond that.
"The beginning will be the same, but after we get started we'll probably do more scrimmaging this year than I did a year ago earlier," Calipari said. "But normally I'll have four to five practices already planned. I've got two, and those are in pencil, let me put it that way."
Coach Cal is keeping his eraser at the ready because it's impossible to know exactly what he's going to see out of his team once the Cats can practice 20 hours a week beginning with Big Blue Madness on Friday. If Jon Hood is right, the changes Coach Cal implements in the coming months will start on airplanes.
The reason they'll likely work is also because of the work he does in between those flights. Calipari recruits players who are willing to change with him.
"Whatever I ask our guys to do, they'll do it," Calipari said. "I just have to make sure whatever I ask them is the right thing."
Volleyball seeking attendance record in Madness kickoff
Before the men's and women's basketball teams hold their first open practice opportunities of the season at Big Blue Madness, the Kentucky volleyball team will take the floor for its first-ever match in Rupp Arena. The Wildcats will take on Mississippi State at 5 p.m. with doors opening at 4 p.m. hoping to break the national volleyball attendance record of 17,340 set at the 2008 Final Four.
For Craig Skinner, playing in front of a crowd that large would be a dream come true, one that started when Skinner was introduced as UK head coach before a basketball game in Rupp in 2005.
"Obviously Midnight Madness is about basketball, but for us and our players to have a chance to compete in front of as many people as we hope will show up tomorrow (is special)," Skinner said.
The volleyball and basketball teams are accustomed to sharing facilities, as all three squads practice at the Joe Craft Center. The close proximity has helped breed friendships between student-athletes, so the basketball Cats know what the event will mean to their volleyball-playing counterparts.
"That's definitely real cool for their program," junior guard Jarrod Polson said. "They're really good so I definitely think it's going to be fun for them. They're really hyped about getting to play in front of so many people."
Kentucky looks to break the NCAA volleyball national attendance record Friday at Big Blue Madness. (UK Athletics, Britney McIntosh)
For the first time in the Craig Skinner era, the Kentucky volleyball team will be participating in Big Blue Madness as the opening act to Friday night's festivities. And for the first time in Kentucky volleyball history, a match will be played on the Rupp Arena floor.
Kentucky has four homegrown players from within the state, but one player in particular could not be more excited about the opportunity to be part of the first UK volleyball team to play in the arena. After all, growing up in Taylor Mill, Ky., in Northern Kentucky and being born and raised into family full of Blue bloods, how could she not be?
"I was so excited to find out that we were going to play at Rupp Arena," said sophomore outside hitter Lauren O'Conner. "I never thought that I would play there and it means so much to me, being from Kentucky, to get the privilege to be a part of the first volleyball team to play in Rupp."
Kentucky over the past few years has played in some large arenas and unique environments. The Wildcats have traveled to Omaha, Neb., and played at the CenturyLink Center, which currently holds the national attendance record for an NCAA volleyball match (17,340). They've also played at the University of Nebraska in front of one of the greatest fan bases in all of the sport. They played at the KFC Yum! Center earlier this season in front of a raucous crowd for the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry. And they annually play at Florida and Tennessee, which both play their home matches in their basketball arenas.
But perhaps none of those opportunities could prepare them for what lies ahead Friday night.
Rupp Arena will be the largest venue that the Wildcats will have ever competed in and it holds upwards of 24,000 fans. With a full house expected at Rupp on Friday night, it's very possible that UK could break the national attendance record that has stood since the Final Four in 2008.
The Wildcats are hoping to give the casual fan an opportunity not only to see their team, but to grow the sport and the program.
"It's great we're getting the opportunity to play in front of a new audience," said senior setter Christine Hartmann. "A lot of fans last year came to our match against Texas as their first time seeing a match and many said they really enjoyed it. So any time you can get new fans to see you is great to get a bigger fan base."
But while the novelty of the event will certainly be an energizer for the Kentucky volleyball program, they are still in the midst of their Southeastern Conference schedule. Friday's match against Mississippi State counts the same as all the rest of the matches, despite the circumstances.
A loss to the Bulldogs (4-12, 0-7 SEC) Friday night would not only be a blow to what the Cats are trying to accomplish by performing at Big Blue Madness, but it would also be a tough loss to take as they try to make a strong run through the SEC. But as they found out last season when they traveled to MSU, when you play in Madness-type environment, anything can happen.
When Kentucky played in Starkville, Miss., last season against the Bulldogs, the match was played at their "Maroon Madness." With the crowd's support and an energized home team, UK fell at the hands of the Bulldogs despite the records and reputations.
With those memories fresh in their minds, they know that even with the opportunity to play in an exciting new environment, their focus first and foremost needs to be on defeating Mississippi State.
"One of my personal main focuses this year has to been to treat every team the same," said Hartmann. "No one else is wearing a Kentucky jersey and that's reason enough to want to win. Yes, we need to bring energy and get excited, but we can't give in to the hype too much and lose focus of what we came to do."
But at the end of the day, the event as a whole will in fact be an incredible opportunity for Skinner's program. Not every volleyball team has the opportunity to play at a "Madness" event, and certainly no other program in America can boast Kentucky fans and Rupp Arena as the venue, even if it is only for one night.
"Kentucky fans don't mess around," said O'Conner. "They are always supportive and they will bring a lot of excitement and support to our match. We have had a lot of support in previous games at Memorial (Coliseum), but this will be a whole new level."
Coach Skinner joins us for our third installment of Coaches Corner. Kentucky faces Mississippi State at Rupp Arena on Friday. The match will take place at 5 p.m. ET to kick off a full night of UK events in Rupp Arena. It will also mark the first regular-season UK volleyball match to take place in Rupp Arena in school history.
"We are thrilled to be playing as a part of Big Blue Madness and have it be the first time our program has played in historic Rupp Arena," UK coach Craig Skinner said. "Having a chance to break the national attendance record in the sport of volleyball and expose new fans to our program is a fantastic opportunity. I want to thank all involved for including this match as a part of this great event."
In addition to the volleyball match, Big Blue Madness is the first open practice opportunity for Kentucky's 2012-13 men's and women's basketball teams. This will be the eighth time Madness has been held at Rupp Arena. Fans will be allowed to enter Rupp Arena beginning at 4 p.m. the night of Big Blue Madness.
Madness timeline: - 4 p.m. - Doors open - 5 p.m. - UK volleyball vs. Mississippi State - 9:30 p.m. - Big Blue Madness concludes
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Oct. 7:
Volleyball: Stephanie Klefot
Senior Stephanie Klefot charted 37 digs in a pair of SEC road matches for an average of 4.62 digs per set. Klefot has now pushed her career total to 1,708 to move into sole possession of seventh place in the SEC career record books. She is now just the ninth player in league history to accumulate 1,700 scoops or more in a career. Klefot was instrumental in leading UK to a 2-0 lead at No. 11 Florida, as the Gators logged just a .111 hitting clip through the first two sets including a negative .033 percentage in the second frame. The five assists against the Gators is a season-high for the Louisville, Ky., native. Her 22 digs against the Gators was a match-high and the 27th time in her career she has eclipsed the 20-dig plateau and the fourth time this season.
Volleyball: Lauren O'Conner
Sophomore Lauren O'Conner had a spectacular week in leading UK to a 1-1 week on the road in SEC action. O'Conner launched 29 kills (10 more than any other player for the Cats) for the weekend for a 3.62 kill per set average. However, it was her efficieny that was the most impressive. O'Conner utilized a team-high .464 hitting percentage and committed just three errors in 56 attempts for the weekend. In Friday's victory over Ole Miss, the sophomore had a team-high 11 kills on a career-best .556 hitting percentage. She then tallied a career-high 18 kills in a dramatic five-set loss at No. 11 Florida while hitting .421.
Kentucky looks to improve their SEC record when the travel to Ole Miss and Florida this weekend. (UK Athletics, Chet White)
When asked about the upcoming weekend including a rematch with No. 11 Florida, Kentucky volleyball head coach Craig Skinner was quick to swat away any mention of Sunday's match.
"(I'm) Not talking about Florida yet," said Skinner. "No comment on Florida."
That's because before Kentucky travels to Gainesville, Fla., the Wildcats have to first take care of business against the Ole Miss Rebels on Friday night at 8:00 p.m. ET in Oxford, Miss.
Now five matches into the Southeastern Conference slate, Skinner's team is riding a three-match win streak into this weekend's matchups with Ole Miss (8-6, 2-3 SEC) and Florida (11-2, 5-0 SEC). One glance at the records of those two teams and one might expect the Cats to be pumping themselves up for a rematch against the Gators.
Kentucky opened up SEC play with Florida at Memorial Coliseum looking to make a statement early on in conference play. The Cats had almost pulled off an upset over No. 1 ranked Nebraska the weekend before, but had lost two matches in a row and had waited an entire week to play.
A statement was made, but it was almost exclusively Florida doing the talking. The Gators swept the Wildcats on their home floor and Kentucky was staggering.
Most teams would be salivating at the chance to right that wrong and take down the undefeated conference leaders, but not Kentucky. At least not yet.
The Wildcats first have to get past the Rebels, who, despite a losing record so far in the conference, haven't dropped a home match this season in five tries. The unique environment that Mississippi provides gives the Rebels a strong home-court advantage, and Kentucky has had its share of struggles in Oxford.
Last season, the Cats barely skated by with the match going five sets. After going deep into its bench, Kentucky was left in a quite a predicament.
"A lot of us upperclassmen know just how well they play against us when we play there," said senior setter Christine Hartmann. "Last year we ran out of subs and we had to play Jessi (Greenberg) on the outside and we still won. So it was great to know we can win in that environment in that situation."
With the rematch with the Gators looming, Kentucky is hardly distracted.
Kentucky, which showed up at No. 17 in the first RPI ranking of the season, was saddled with arguably the hardest non-conference schedule in the country. The Cats had their share of marquee opponents, and they've also had their hiccups along the way. After all that this team has gone through in the first half of the season, it seems the Cats have learned their lesson when it comes to overlooking their next opponent.
"We've learned too much already to look past our next match," said Skinner. "I know our team understands the ability of Ole Miss and what they are capable of and the types of things they do to be successful. So I don't think there's any doubt that we'll be ready to play in Oxford on Friday night."
If what his players are saying is any indication of that, then he's exactly right.
"We can't overlook Ole Miss and look straight to Florida," said senior libero Stephanie Klefot. "Ole Miss is a really good team and just going in (Thursday), having a good practice, and then Saturday, when we go to Gainesville, we will focus on Florida then."
The key to keeping their attention toward the Rebels is an increased emphasis on focus. The longer the Wildcats can focus, the better off they will be.
"One thing (Skinner) just said at the end of practice was that we need to focus for longer periods of time," said Hartmann. "That's the biggest thing for us. Even against Auburn when we had that second set where we had a mental lapse and let them come back in, so that's where we're translating from practice."
Focus isn't just the emphasis, but it's an ongoing theme for the Wildcats on a daily basis. Whether it's on the court or in the coaches' offices, every member of the program is making sure to keep their sights on the next task at hand.
For Kentucky, it's all about working on what the Wildcats do well, and not so much about Ole Miss, Florida or whoever the opponent may be. Kentucky has to take care of itself and take things one step at a time.
"It's doing what we do," said Skinner. "We have to focus on that. As coaches we have to prepare each day and that's what we've stressed to our team is that today is the most important thing we can think about and that's really what our focus is in the office and during practice."
That's exactly what this team is doing. They've bought into the process of becoming a good team through training, practice, and the matches themselves while living in the present.
And how have they done that? By focusing, of course.
"We're trying to just stay focused," said Klefot. "We're not really looking back at what we have done and haven't done. We're just trying to play one day at a time, really, and just continue to get better at the things we need to get better at.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Sept. 30:
Volleyball: Whitney Billings
Junior Whitney Billings has guided the Wildcats to a season-long winning streak of three matches including an upset of No. 25 Tennessee this week and a four-set win over Auburn on Sunday. With the win over the Lady Vols, UK has now won just two of the last nine meetings while stretching its winning-streak over the Tigers to four matches. Billings simply has been superb leading UK in kills (4.14) and digs (4.43) this week with a pair of double-double efforts. She had 10 kills and 16 digs vs. Tennessee, and then totaled 19 kills and 15 digs in the win over Auburn. She has now charted three-straight double-double efforts for just the second time in her career (and second this season). The 19-kills vs. Auburn was a career-high for a four-set match, as well as a season-high. The 16 scoops vs. the Lady Vols matched a season-high. The 10-kill performance with zero errors marked the first double-figure kill effort without committing an error in her career. For the week, she ranked in UK's top-two performances in every statistical category including kills (first), assists (second), aces (second), digs (first), blocks (second) and points (first). During conference action she is the only player who leads her team in scoring to rank in the top-20 statistically of conference leaders in four or more categories: kills (17th), aces (1st), blocks (15th) and digs (20th).
Women's soccer: Kelli Hubly
Freshman Kelli Hubly scored both of UK's goals in the 2-2 draw with No. 6 Texas A&M Friday night in Lexington. The Elk Grove, Ill., native struck for the game-opening goal in the 52nd minute and then again with under 10 minutes remaining in the game. The 5-9 forward has already tallied 10 points on her freshman campaign, which is tied for second on the team.
Men's soccer: Tyler Riggs
Junior forward Tyler Riggs had a prolific two-game week in leading the Wildcats to a win and draw ... During the 5-1 win at IPFW, Riggs totaled two goals, his second career multi-goal game ... In the Conference USA opener against Memphis on Sunday, Riggs contributed sixth goal of the year, also adding his fourth assist ... The Louisville, Ky., native fired a total of six shots during the week, with three going for goals ... On the year, Riggs has a team-high six goals and four assists and in his career, Riggs has 22 goals, nine assists and 53 points ... With 22 goals, Riggs ranks tied with Matt Lodge for sixth-best in UK career history and his 53 points rank seventh-best.
Junior Whitney Billings is SEC Player of the Week for week of Oct. 1. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It's hard to imagine where this Kentucky volleyball team would be without its right side hitter. Junior Whitney Billings may not be the most vocal leader on the court every match for the Wildcats, but she's been instrumental in the turnaround this team has experienced over the last three matches.
Billings has spearheaded the effort to get the Cats back on the right track after suffering through a four-match losing streak. Her offensive potency has helped Kentucky find the light at the end of the tunnel, and it doesn't look like the Wildcats are turning back any time soon.
Over the last three matches, Billings has amassed 45 kills, averaging 3.75 kills per set. In their previous two wins over Tennessee and Auburn, Billings has 29 kills and is averaging 4.14 kills per set. Her offensive numbers were off the charts and crucial in leading Kentucky in both wins this week, leading her to her first career Southeastern Conference Player of the Week award Monday.
What may be looked over, however, is that Billings could have walked away with both weekly SEC awards after her dynamite defensive performances in those two matches as well as in addition to her numbers against Texas A&M.
Billings has tallied at least 15 digs in each of the last three matches (16, 16, and 15). She led the team in digs in UK's three-set sweep over the Lady Vols, then followed that up with a 15-dig effort over Auburn on Sunday. Billings also led UK with 4.43 digs per set over those two matches.
She can block too.
She has at least four block assists in each of her last three matches (five, four and four), leading her team in both the Texas A&M and Tennessee matches in that statistical category. She ranks in the top-20 in the in the conference with .84 blocks per set.
And she can serve too.
One of the most impressive aspects of Billings' game has been her ability to hold serve and help her team get some easy points. Every point starts with a serve, and Billings is doing everything she can to make sure that when she has a chance, she makes that first touch difficult for the opponent. In her 56 serving opportunities this season, she has 20 aces, good for .36 aces per set. That's good for second in the SEC.
In fact, she is doing things that no other player in the SEC can boast. During conference action she is the only player who leads her team in scoring to rank in the top-20 statistically of conference leaders in four or more categories: kills (17th), aces (first), blocks (15th) and digs (20th).
She may be the Player of the Week for Oct. 1, but come December, Whitney Billings is likely to have more hardware coming her way if she continues to be the top all-around performer in the conference.
If "SEC Player of the Week" has a nice ring to it, imagine how beautiful "SEC Player of the Year" might sound.