CatsIllustrated - Cal to Cal: 'Lighten up'
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Cal to Cal: 'Lighten up'

Kentucky coach John Calipari says he has expected too much, too soon from his Wildcats and must put more effort into being patient, having fun. 

Kentucky's John Calipari has worn a similar expression for most of the young season.
Kentucky's John Calipari has worn a similar expression for most of the young season. (Jeff Drummond/Cats Illustrated)

It's safe to say the first month of the college basketball season hasn't unfolded quite the way Kentucky expected it would.

Not only did the Wildcats experience a 34-point come-to-Jesus moment courtesy of Duke in the season opener, but for the exception of a lopsided romp over North Dakota on Nov. 14, they haven't looked like the national contender everyone expected in any of their other four games.

Big Blue Nation collectively asked the same question during their recent holiday gatherings:

"What happened to the UK team that played in the Bahamas this summer?"

Kentucky coach John Calipari gave some clues that supported one of my theories during his weekly radio call-in show Monday night.

"I just told them, I want to have fun," Calipari said of a recent conversation with his team. "I'm getting a little frustrated. I want to have fun with this. If this is where we are, I'm going to deal with it. As we go through the grind of this, you've got to have fun with this."

It's almost as if the Hall of Fame coach has been reading my mind.

Granted, UK is ranked No. 10 in the nation and 5-1 on the season, so it's not like we have a crisis in Lexington. But I left Rupp Arena on Friday wondering about Calipari's state of mind after UK posted a modest 77-62 victory over Tennessee State.

For much of that game, he looked and sounded miserable. He stomped. He screamed. He cursed a big blue streak. He yanked players in and out of the game with a revolving door of substitutions that seemingly sent his blood pressure soaring higher with every move.

Kentucky substituted 29 times during that game. I'm not sure if that's normal or high for an average game, but it felt like it was on the high side to me. With the exception of the opening minutes of the game, UK played with the same personnel for more than three minutes on only two occasions -- once in the first half, once in the second half.

For the rest of the game, someone new was in and out of the lineup about every 90 seconds. How can a team build any cohesion playing like that, I wondered.

So go back to the question I posed earlier:

"What happened to the UK team that played in the Bahamas this summer?"

Kentucky steamrolled four professional teams in Nassau, squads that we were told were among the best in their respective countries and had future professionals on the rosters. The Cats played loose. They played aggressive. They ran the floor and shared the basketball and dunked and buried 3s. They looked like they were having a blast.

Nick Richards, in particular, looked like a different player than the one we saw last season as a freshman. He looked like a future pro. Since beginning his sophomore season, he has not.

What's the difference?

I would submit that he was having fun, and letting his natural talents take over in the Bahamas. He wasn't worrying about leaving the game every time he made the smallest mistake.

And where was Calipari during that trip? He was sitting in the back row of the bleachers evaluating the Cats while his assistant coaches handled the UK bench, only coming to the huddle a handful of times to provide input. He was not micromanaging

Before you think this is a critique of Calipari's coaching ability, it's not. The man is one of the best to ever do it at this level, and that's why he's got a plaque in the Hall of Fame and a national championship ring. He has forgotten more about hoops than I'll ever know, and he doesn't need a keyboard "Basketball Bennie" like me telling him what's best for his team.

But I do think he's come to the same realization on his own, as evidenced by his comments Monday night on his radio show.

"To be honest, for me, the thought of how much work we have to do -- just, oh -- I've got to love this every day I walk in and be about these kids getting better while holding them accountable," Calipari said.

"I've just got to stay in the mindset that I'm having a ball, and it's hard. It's hard now. And the other mindset is, you have to really have fun with this stuff. I can't get frustrated because if you're frustrated, you can't have fun. It just doesn't work. So I've just got to let some of this stuff go and just say, 'Hey we're going to learn and see.' We've got time. It's November. It's not the pace I'd like it to be, but that's OK."

"But I like this team. This is one of the great groups of kids that we've had here. They want to be coached. They want to do this right."