Saturday afternoon against Auburn, John Calipari passed Joe B. Hall for second place on the all-time Kentucky basketball win list. That is no small feat. Only Adolph Rupp has won more games at Kentucky. If you are that great at Kentucky, such an accomplishment speaks for itself.
By Matt Zemek
One could say that Kentucky’s ability to thrash Auburn — which won last year’s SEC regular-season title, shared with Tennessee — despite playing without injured big man Reid Travis is a sign of how well Calipari has coached his team over the past seven weeks. To be sure, Calipari had his team fully ready to play against Auburn. Cal has developed P.J. Washington’s game to the point where Kentucky is now a prime favorite to make the Final Four and challenge Duke for the national title. This season has displayed Calipari’s coaching acumen. The Auburn game is definitely part of it. Both Kentucky games against Auburn this season have revealed Cal at his best.
Yet, interestingly enough, this past week of Kentucky basketball — in which Calipari tied and then surpassed Joe B. Hall in the history books — might be more instructive not because of what occurred against Auburn, but because of what occurred on Tuesday night in Columbia, Missouri.
Of course Missouri is not a good team this season, diminished by the injury to Jontay Porter. Of course it was unremarkable on its face that Kentucky beat Mizzou by a single-digit margin, 66-58. Of course that win did not deserve a splashy, effusive national reaction. It was merely taking care of business on the road against a mediocre team, and nothing more.
The key point, though: Calipari recognized that game for what it was. He didn’t try to make a bigger deal out of it. He didn’t light into his team the way some coaches would do — or have done — after a close win against a bottom-tier SEC opponent.
No, Calipari is focused on and aware of a bigger picture and a larger context. Unlike a lot of coaches, he understands something about guiding a group of college athletes through a long season: The level of intensity won’t be the same every night. Some coaches get it, but not all do. Calipari is at the head of the class in this regard, and his comment about the eight-point win at Missouri reflects his level of understanding:
“These kids aren’t machines. They aren’t robots,” Calipari said. “We just played Tennessee. It was a hyped-up game. To come on the road against a team that you know plays hard . I knew it was going to be a war.”
To be sure, Calipari can and does lay it on thick sometimes. He has had his moments in which he himself has been dissatisfied with a sloppy performance in a win. Yet, the worst moments of his career, such as the 2013 NIT season and the rough patches in the 2016 and 2018 seasons, could have made some coaches stubborn. They have made Calipari learn lessons, and he has been agile enough to absorb the meanings of those difficult periods. Calipari, as one would expect of a great coach, is able to adjust and adapt. This is why we see him — and Roy Williams, to mention another high-profile example — lead with distinction in February. Cal and Roy regularly get their teams to improve at this point in the season, leading them higher precisely when this month ends and moves into March.
It’s not as though these coaches say to themselves, “I’m not going to coach as hard in December as I do in early February.” No. They do understand, however, that information won’t be processed right away, or that one game will not be treated the same as another. No. With human beings — especially young ones — fluctuations in performance are part of the deal. Living with imperfections is a necessity for a college coach. This doesn’t mean accepting poor effort or bad habits. It does mean having an allowance for the rigors of a season, and of the reality that after playing Tennessee in an electric Rupp Arena, going to Missouri will not create the same juice or buzz.
Calipari was mindful enough to have his team shorten that game at Missouri, even if it meant winning by 10-15 fewer points. Calipari was secure enough in his own skin to win that game by a smaller margin, not caring what conventional wisdom or normal habits might have suggested. He wanted to save his players some wear and tear, and he used the perfect opponent to do it against.
Tom Thibodeau was notorious in his NBA coaching career (we will see if another team gives him a job) for keeping his starters in the game until the very last seconds of a 10- or 15-point game. The most infamous example came with Derrick Rose playing in an NBA playoff game for the Chicago Bulls which was well in hand against the Philadelphia 76ers. Rose got injured late in the contest, at a point in time when he could have and should have been on the bench. The Bulls were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference that year, and in truth, that was their last best chance to make the NBA Finals. The franchise hasn’t been as good since then. It made a brief run in 2015, but as soon as LeBron James won Game 4 of the East semifinals that year in Chicago, the dream was dead.
Calipari’s approach to the Missouri game was the antithesis of Thibodeau’s philosophy. Kentucky is better for it — on a general level, due to its February improvements in most seasons, but also this week. That was a fresh-looking team which ran past Auburn. The way Cal handled the Missouri game led into the Auburn game.
Kentucky has a jockey who knows how to manage his horses. A state which loves racing and basketball has the ideal coach in John Calipari.