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Calipari Reveals “Tweak” That Aided Kentucky In The Big Dance

gfx-they-said-it4As Kentucky limped into the SEC Tournament with 9 losses and a 1-3 record in its last four regular-season games, John Calipari announced that he’d come up with a “tweak” that would hopefully change the Wildcats’ fortunes in the postseason.  The tweak worked, apparently.  The Cats made it to the SEC tourney final before losing to Florida by a point.  Then they won five straight in the NCAA Tournament before falling to UConn in the national title game.

So what was Calipari’s tweak?  UK’s coach appeared on “CBS This Morning” earlier today.  As CollegeBasketballTalk.com points out, he there revealed that the tweak was actually a simple request that point guard Andrew Harrison pass the ball more and shoot the ball less:

 

“I showed Andrew (tapes of NBA point guard Deron Williams).  I said, ‘Look at this, let’s watch.  Would you have passed or shot?’  He said, ‘I would have shot.’  Would you have or shot?  Well, Deron was throwing ball to everybody.

And so, I said, ‘Monday, you will not shoot one basketball.  You will pass, we’re gonna run these plays, you will create shots.  We will chart; we’re not telling our team.’  He comes in, he has 26 assists attempts, 21 assists that Monday, I’m mad the whole practice because it changed our team.  Why didn’t I do it earlier?  And then I apologized to him.  I apologized to the team and I said, ‘I screwed this up, make me look good now.’”

 

Now, you know very well that a light bulb didn’t suddenly come on for Calipari.  You can be sure he tried to coax Harrison into shooting less and passing more for much of the season, not just at tourney time.  But Calipari’s handling of the situation — the tournaments give us a new chance to adjust, we’ve struggled not because of you but because of me, etc — was perfect.

Kentucky’s coach is often saddled with the tag of “great recruiter, so-so coach.”  Heck, as his team kept dropping regular-season games this year there were plenty of Big Blue fans who made that exact point on messageboards, Twitter and talk radio.  But the reality is Calipari has been able to make deep tournament runs with freshmen-heavy teams in four of his five seasons in Lexington.  That takes a good coach.  And whether it’s on the court or playing a few mind games with his team off it, Calipari has proven himself to be a very, very good coach.

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Florida Vies To Pass Kentucky In Recent SEC Hoops Supremacy

florida-dunk-over-kentucky-2014Eighteen years ago, Kentucky basketball was sitting atop its traditional perch looking down the rest of the Southeastern Conference.  Rick Pitino would lead his final Wildcats team to the NCAA Tournament finals.  Tubby Smith would replace Pitino and win UK the national crown a season later.  The two combined for 70 wins in those crossover seasons.

But down in Gainesville, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley had just made a move that would alter the course of SEC basketball for nearly two decades.  He hired a young coach named Billy Donovan.  The former Pitino player and assistant had served just two years as head coach at Marshall before Foley tabbed him to replace Lon Kruger.  Donovan’s record at the West Virginia school was 35-20.  After struggling in his first two years in the Sunshine State, Donovan’s career mark stood at just 62-52.  At that point, few would have guessed that he would be the man to challenge Kentucky’s long-held dominance in the Southeastern Conference.

In many ways, this year’s Final Four — if won by UF or UK — could serve as a sort of rubber match between the two dominant hoops programs.  The numbers including Donovan’s first two rebuilding years also include the final heights of Pitino and Smith at Kentucky.  Take those first two rebuilding seasons out of the mix and Florida has arguably been the SEC’s best basketball program over the last 16 seasons.

Below is a comparison of the programs including the 1996-1997 and 1997-98 seasons:

 

1996-97 through 2013-14

  Category   Florida   Kentucky
  Seasons   18   18
  30-Win Seasons   3   4
  20-Win Seasons   16   17
  NCAA Trips   14   16
  NIT Trips   3   2
  NCAA Titles   2   2
  NCAA Final Fours   4   5
  NCAA Elite Eights   7   7
  NCAA Sweet Sixteens   8   9
  SEC Championships   6   7
  SEC Tourney Championships   4   8
  Overall Winning Pct.   .728   .757

 

While Florida has put up a nice challenge to the Wildcats over that span, UK still retains the crown when you include the end of Pitino and the start of Smith.  While Donovan was rebuilding (27-32 his first two years with the Gators), UK was going 35-5 and 35-4, reaching the NCAA title game twice, and claiming one championship banner.

But how does the story read since Donovan got his program up and running?  Below are the accomplishments of Florida and Kentucky from the 1998-99 season forward:

 

1998-99 through 2013-14

  Category   Florida   Kentucky
  Seasons   16   16
  30-Win Seasons   3   2
  20-Win Seasons   16   15
  NCAA Trips   14   14
  NIT Trips   2   2
  NCAA Titles   2   1
  NCAA Final Fours   4   3
  NCAA Elite Eights   7   7
  NCAA Sweet Sixteens   8   9
  SEC Championships   6   6
  SEC Tourney Championships   4   6
  Overall Winning Pct.   .757   .746

 

While not a complete flip-flop, Florida does hold what we consider to be a slight advantage over Kentucky since 1998-98.  Looking back 16 years instead of 18, Donovan’s two worst years are taken out of the mix.  Also gone are two of UK’s best years.

It also must be noted that while Donovan has been the only man in charge of the Gators during the past 18 seasons, the Wildcats have had four bosses: Pitino, Smith, Billy Gillespie and John Calipari.  Advantage: Florida on the stability front.  However, at his current pace, it appears Calipari is going to have Kentucky flying at high altitudes — right along with Florida — for as long as he remains in Lexington.

This year’s Final Four could result in a third national crown for Florida (over 16 or 18 seasons).  Looking at it only since Donovan built up UF, that would give the Gators a three-to-one advantage in NCAA hardware since 1998-99.  A national title for Kentucky would even the two schools with two crowns apiece since Donovan turned Florida into a national power.

It’s possible, of course, that neither Florida nor Kentucky will win this season’s national title.  Here’s hoping one or the other does cut down the nets in North Texas.  If for no other reason than to further spice up the debate as to whether or not the Gators have surpassed the Wildcats when it comes to recent SEC hoops supremacy.

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SEC Headlines 3/31/2014

 headlines-monSEC Football

1. Report: Alabama will hire former Washington assistant Tosh Lupoi in an off-field role.

2. Alabama will get back to work this week as the team returns from spring break.

3. Auburn is adjusting its defensive line by trying to get bigger bodies on the field at the same time.

4. Angelo Blackson is hoping to earn more playing time at defensive tackle for the Tigers.

5. Arkansas is giving Kody Walker a look at fullback to see if he can handle the position.

6. LSU is putting its quarterbacks to the test as the Tigers continue to look for a starter.

SEC/NCAA Tournament

7. Pat Forde steps up and eats some crow now that Kentucky has advanced to the Final Four.

8. Kentucky’s toughness is a big reason the Wildcats are still alive in the tournament.

9. Are we headed toward an all-SEC championship game? Gary Parrish takes a look.

10. Florida and Kentucky are the two best teams in the Final Four, writes Jeff Borzello.

11. Florida will get its rematch with UConn, which is the last team to beat the Gators.

12. Former UConn standout Kevin Ollie has returned the program to an elite level as its coach.

13. Which teams have the advantages when it comes to matchups in the Final Four?

SEC Basketball

14. Report: Marquette officials met with Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin on Sunday.

15. The SEC is still a lousy league despite the success of Florida and Kentucky, writes David Climer.

Extra

16. Michigan State Tom Izzo said he’s learned from Nick Saban’s public handling of job speculation.

17. Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins is expected to announce today he’s leaving for the NBA.

18. Basketball coach Tommy Amaker announced he will stay at Harvard.

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SEC Hoops Roundup: Kentucky Advances To Final Four

gfx-hoops-round-up2Kentucky 75 – Michigan 72

1. It was another thriller for Kentucky, which advanced on a last-minute three by guard Aaron Harrison.

2. Kentucky was playing without Willie Cauley-Stein. So freshman Marcus Lee stepped up in a big way.

3. Kentucky has looked down and out several times. But the Wildcats never stopped believing in themselves.

4. Michigan lived by the three and died by the three all season. That held true until the very end.

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Calipari’s Kentucky Team Didn’t Give Up On Season Despite “Disappointments”

NCAA BASKETBALL: APR 01 New Kentucky Basketball Coach John CalipariWhen the word “undefeated” gets batted around and you then go 24-10, it’s viewed as a disappointing season.

When you’re picked as a preseason #1 and you then go 24-10, it’s viewed as a disappointing season.

When you’re expected to rebound from an NIT finish the previous year and you then go 24-10, it’s viewed as a disappointing season.

Anytime you go 24-10 at Kentucky, it’s viewed as a disappointing season.

You get the drift.  For many/most Kentucky fans, 2013-14 was a disappointment.  High expectations gave way to more “John Calipari can’t coach; he can only recruit” talk within the Big Blue fanbase.  Two NCAA Tournament wins — including a win over a Wichita State squad that actually was undefeated — have pushed the Wildcats’ record to 26-10 and propelled UK back into the Sweet 16.  Tonight, they face defending champ and cross-state rival Louisville in Indianapolis for the right to move on to the Elite Eight.

If Kentucky wins, it will be the school’s fourth Elite Eight in five years under Calipari.  Some disappointment.

In Lexington — as is the case in Durham, Chapel Hill, Bloomington, and Lawrence — the expectations are consistently high.  As in Willie Nelson high.  Very, very high.  In five seasons, Calipari has already reached three Elite Eights, two Final Fours, won one national title — is that all? — and won more than 80% of his games.  Those are some pretty remarkable accomplishments considering the fact that Coach Cal basically starts from scratch with a new batch of freshmen starters every single season.

Still, this year has been viewed as a let-down in the Commonwealth.  Calipari doesn’t see it that way.  ”Every game we lost was like a two-point, three-point game,” he said yesterday.  While that’s a bit of an exaggeration, his point is sound — UK was in most of its losses until late in those contests.  Then came a change prior to the SEC Tournament:

 

“We accepted roles… A lot of this was on me.  We hadn’t really defined roles, because we hadn’t really figured each other out.  And I wasn’t very specific on how we had to play.”

 

Nice of the coach to say, but you can be sure he’s taking on more than his fair share of the blame in order to protect his players.

Aside from Kentucky fans might have overinflated expectations year in and year out, there’s another lesson to be learned here — Don’t give up on a season before its actually finished.  As appears to have happened with Kentucky, it’s never too late for redemption in basketball.  Reach the NCAAs and all bets are off.

But don’t take our word for it.  Just check out the turnarounds of some of the other squads still dribbling this late in the season:

 

* Virginia lost four non-conference games before smoking through the ACC with a 16-2 mark.

* Wisconsin is already through to the Elite Eight despite a 4-5 start to its Big Ten slate.

* Down the road at Tennessee, the Vols have won eight of nine since finding themselves 15-11 on February 22nd.

* Michigan State went just 5-7 from January 25th through the end of the regular season.

* Iowa State opened Big 12 play 3-4.

* Dayton’s start to the season was 13-8.  They’ve gone 13-2 since and punched their ticket to the Elite Eight last night.

 

Calipari and his team weren’t the greatest team ever assembled as some had hoped/prayed/demanded.  So be it.  But the Wildcats’ season didn’t end in February, either.  There were still chapters to be written which meant all the moaning and groaning in the Bluegrass State was premature.

If Kentucky wins tonight, much more will be forgiven.  If UK loses — to hated Louisville — the grumbles will start anew.  But the reality is this: UK will have reached the Sweet 16 and knocked off an unbeaten top-five team to get there.  Couple that with Calipari’s prior accomplishments in Lexington and its ridiculous for anyone to put the word “disappointment” beside his name or beside his squad’s team photo.

In fact, the only people to be disappointed in are the nitwits who looked at a team expected to start four or five freshman and said, “Yep, they can go undefeated.”

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SEC Hoops Roundup: Vols, Wildcats Advance

gfx-hoops-round-up2Tennessee 86 – UMass 67

1. Jarnell Stokes scored a career-high 26 points while helping the Vols beat UMass.

2. Playing Iowa in the first round on Wednesday might have helped Tennessee be ready to play UMass.

3. Next up for Tennessee is No. 14 seed Mercer, which knocked off No. 3 seed Duke on Friday.

Kentucky 56 – Kansas State 49

4. Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein said the Wildcats believe they can still do something special.

5. A second win in the tournament would be more special. Kentucky will face unbeaten Wichita State in the next round.

6. Video: Kentucky coach John Calipari discusses the win over Kansas State.

Saturday SEC Hoops Schedule

Florida vs Pittsburgh – 12:15 ET. Florida is a 6-point favorite.

7. Florida knows it’s about to face a good Pittsburgh team. The Panthers beat Colorado soundly on Thursday.

8. Pat Dooley looks at the upcoming matchup for Florida, which had coach Billy Donovan “baffled” over its play in round two.

Georgia vs Louisiana Tech – 11 a.m. ET (NIT)

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SEC Hoops Roundup: Florida Moves On, Tennessee & Kentucky Up Next

gfx-hoops-round-up2Florida 67 – Albany 55

1. Florida survives against 16-seed Albany.  Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin: “We didn’t play like we need to in the NCAA Tournament.”

2. Coach Billy Donovan: ”This isn’t going to be enough to keep our season going.”

3. 33-2 Florida will meet 26-9 Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon.

Friday SEC Hoops Schedule

Tennessee vs UMass – 2:45 ET.  Vols are 4-point favorite.

5. Less than 48 hours after winning in Dayton, Tennessee is back in the court in Raleigh.

6. Tennessee guard Jordan McRae:  “Everybody was tired, but everybody’s adrenaline is running high.”

Kansas State vs Kentucky – 9:40 ET. Kentucky is a 6-point favorite

7. Kentucky has never lost to Kansas State - 8-0 all-time against the Big 12 Wildcats.

8. Tim Sullivan: “If Kentucky is a gritty little underdog, so was Goliath.”

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SEC Recruiting Notebook: Five-Star Jefferson ‘Giving Everyone A Chance’

sec-recruiting-notebook-gfxCeCe Jefferson has more college options than he can count.

The defensive tackle from Baker County High School in Glen St. Mary, Fla., holds offer from schools such as Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU, Tennessee, Florida State, Ohio State and Southern California. That’s just the start of it.

The amount of interest Jefferson is receiving is the reason he plans to keep his options open and wait until national signing day to announce his decision.

“I am still fairly even and that is why I decided to make my commitment on national signing day and don’t have a top five or anything,” Jefferson told Rivals.com. “I am just giving everyone a chance to prove to me why I should go to their school. The more visits I take the better I will know what I like and don’t like.”

Jefferson, who’s ranked the nation’s No. 2 defensive tackle by Rivals, has already begun taking unofficial visits. He has recently taken trips to Florida, Florida State and Georgia.

Jefferson’s visit to Florida last weekend came with a similar message from the Gators’ staff: he is a top priority in the 2015 class.

“They made it real sure they let me know that Florida is going to be coming at me hardest,” Jefferson said. “They said to keep a lookout for them because they are going to come to one or two of my football games and I better get used to them because they are going to recruit me to the end.”

So will Georgia. New Bulldogs defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has developed a strong relationship with Jefferson dating back to Pruitt’s previous stop at Florida State. Jefferson visited Georgia’s campus for the first time earlier this month.

“It was my first time up there and they set the bar real high,” Jefferson said. “I talked with coach Pruitt about his change from Florida State to Georgia and obviously he saw something in their program that made him want to go.

“They showed me a real good time and a lot of great facilities and Coach (Mark) Richt is a real good guy. I wouldn’t mind playing for Georgia.”

Other schools are just hoping to remain in the mix as they try to improve their standing with Jefferson, who doesn’t claim a ranking of any of the schools he’s considering.

Jefferson told Rivals he plans to visit Alabama, Auburn, LSU and North Carolina during the spring. That will only be the start of it.

 

Livington likes the Wildcats

Kentucky continues to make a favorable impression on offensive/defensive lineman Levon Livingston from Ballou High School in Washington, D.C.

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Rumors Swirl That Calipari Will Leave Kentucky After This Season

john-calipari-would-you-trust-this-man-faceEach spring the sun comes out, flowers blossom, birds chirp, and John Calipari is rumored to be headed to the NBA.  Every.  Single.  Year.

Only this time the Coach Cal rumors are arriving a bit early.

According to KentuckySportsRadio.com, ESPN’s Michael Wilbon said yesterday on “Pardon The Interruption” that he believes Calipari will leave Kentucky after this season.  Then this morning Dan Patrick cited on his radio show a source close to the UK program who says Calipari could leave after the year:

 

Dan Patrick talks about John Calipari 3/04/14

 

Perhaps Calipari is ready to bail out on the UK job because his last two squads have disappointed.  The 2012-13 Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament and fell to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.  His current Cats — once aiming for “perfection” — now have eight losses on the season, five in the SEC and one to a South Carolina team that’s just 4-12 in league play.  That’s not what Big Blue fans want to see.

Calipari might be ready to leave because of those Everest-high fan expectations.  And signing five NBA prospects each year doesn’t exactly lower the bar for a coach.  Especially at a school where anything less than a Final Four trip is viewed as a failed season.

Calipari got the heave-ho via technical fouls during Kentucky’s loss at Carolina last weekend.  He then by-passed his postgame press conference.  A sign that pressure is getting to UK’s boss?  Or just an opportunity for folks to get in some digs?

Kentucky’s coach said all the right things yesterday, taking the blame for the Cats’ recent woes and refusing to “put this on 18-, 19-year-old kids.”  Whether or not he’ll be coaching another group of 18-, 19-year-old kids in Lexington next year is anyone’s guess.  Hell, Coach Cal could have had someone intentionally leak that he might leave in order to remind Wildcat fans to appreciate what they’ve got.  (Alabama’s Nick Saban did that very thing this past January by allowing Texas rumors to swirl for a week.)

But one thing’s for sure — the Calipari rumors are starting early this year.

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SEC Recruiting Notebook: Elam Chooses In-State Kentucky

sec-recruiting-notebook-gfxKentucky received the news it had been waiting for on Thursday when defensive tackle Matt Elam from John Hardin High School in Elizabethtown, Ky., announced his commitment to the Wildcats.

Elam chose Kentucky over Alabama.

“The whole time I was just struggling to pick a school,” he said, according to the Lexington Herald Leader. “It’s hard to turn down Alabama, and it’s crazy that I did. But I feel my heart is at the University of Kentucky — that was the main thing.”

Elam became a main target for Kentucky’s coaching staff early in the recruiting process. The Wildcats knew keeping him from leaving the state would be difficult.

“Coach Stoops is doing something right,” John Hardin coach Chad Lewis told the Herald Leader. “He can’t build this program in one year. The way the program was … it was on a downhill slide.

“It’s going to take some time to rebuild it. The way to rebuild a program is to recruit the best players, and you have to go after the best players. When you land these type of kids, your program’s going to change.”

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has certainly helped improve the Wildcats’ recruiting. Kentucky has 27 commitments for the 2014 class, which is ranked No. 13 in the nation by Rivals.com.

Elam’s commitment means Kentucky has landed three of the state’s top five prospects for 2014. He believes that will be a key in Stoops’ attempt to turn the program around.

“I feel like that’s one of the main reasons why I stayed is just to help out my home-state program, because to have a good program you need great players,” Elam said. “And it has to start with those in-state kids just to be the cornerstone of that. So I feel like me and Drew, we stayed home, and I feel like we’re definitely gonna help out Coach Stoops and the UK program.”

 

Humphrey chooses Alabama

Cornerback Marlon Humphrey from Hoover (Ala.) High School announced his commitment to Alabama this week.

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