Achieving chemistry among chaos the preseason focus for Coach Cal


Kentucky head coach John Calipari yells to his team during the game against Alabama at Rupp Arena on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020 in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky defeated Alabama 76-67. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Eric Decker

‘“Bruiser Flint grabbed me after like four days of practice and he looked at me and said, “How in the world do you do this every year? Because this is hard.”’

Most coaches would love to have John Calipari’s definition of hard. Having a top-three recruiting classes year in and year out? Must be exhausting having to take on five-star talents and try to decipher their strengths on the court. Obviously some are envious. But if talent alone was basketball’s deciding factor, Coach Cal would certainly have more than one national title to his name at Kentucky.

Chemistry, comradery and leadership are all crucial to teams looking to make championship runs. Before Oliver Sarr and Jacob Toppin were ruled eligible last week, the Wildcats were limited to only two players experience at the college level. Creighton grad transfer Davion Mintz, and Keion Brooks Jr., the lone returning player who saw impactful minutes for Cal in 2019, as his entire starting five declared for the NBA Draft.

Brooks’ stats weren’t eye-popping – mainly attributed to his 15 minute per game average – but he had a noticeable impact outside of the box score.

With Nick Richards as the only frontcourt player who could stay healthy early in the season, Brooks was thrusted into a power forward position. The Fort Wayne, Indiana native was tasked with guarding and rebounding against players who were much older and stronger than him, but by the time conference play rolled around, he was impressing on the defensive end.

This preseason though, he has been the one inflicted with the injury bug.

“He’s been hurt… I think he’s going to be out a couple more weeks.” Calipari said. ‘“Every day I see him I’m like “How long?” because we need him back. We need his leadership, we need his basketball sense, we need his knowledge of what these kids are going to face.”’

Kentucky’s 12th-year head coach is leaning on Keion to help nurture the incoming freshman, and build a sense of resiliency that comes with competing at one of the toughest programs in the country. Calipari wants his players to take responsibility in creating a culture among themselves so he can focus on turning these players into superstars, something he’s hinted at with two of the newest Cats.

B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke, both top-ten recruits in the 2020 class, have already shown flashes of what makes them special.

“Well, [Clarke’s] growing right now. His stuff is all potential… I’m going to guess he’s 6-6, 6-7. He’s a guard,” Cal said. “But what we’re finding out, he’s one of those guards that if you get him near the basket, he’s really good. Like, really good eight feet and in… we’re just figuring that out.”

“The other guy that is playing really good is BJ. So, now all of a sudden, you’ve got these two big wings that are both 6-6, 6-7 that are different,” he added. “BJ’s knocking down shots. He’s getting to the rim. He’s making layups. I mean, I’m really surprised.”

While the Sierra Canyon product has been good offensively, that’s not the end of the court where players earn their minutes in Lexington. And he has plenty of room to grow on that defensive side according to his coach.

“He doesn’t guard the way that he has to,” Cal said. “Or the way he will if he wants to stay on the floor.”

The Wildcat coach seemed almost giddy at the versatility this team brings. Clarke and Boston possess different games, but both have ridiculous wingspans that can enable them to be extremely productive while building their frames. Cal compared the integration of those two to what he’s tasked with at point guard, where he has a steady, well-rounded veteran presence in Mintz and a more ball-dominant, inexperienced player in five-star prospect Devin Askew.

While he sorts through it all, he’ll have to rely more on talent during the early portion of this season. COVID-19 protocols have restricted the team’s ability to have its typical bonding exercises and experiences, making it tougher on all the newcomers to get acclimated with one another.

“Normally on the weekends you know they’re here each day on the weekend,” Calipari said. “We’re not doing that right now… we’re not in the locker room right now. We’re not using the hot and cold tubs in the locker room.”

“We’re finally in the last week [able to] let them in the lounge area, but the chairs are six, seven feet away. Only 10 can go in because of the space. It’s only open so many times.”