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UK Basketball: Should It Be A “Players First” Program?

Hamidou Diallo (Vicky Graff Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

In 1870 a south Texas lawyer, Samuel Maverick, received 400 head of cattle to settle a $1,200 debt. As a lawyer he had no use for them so he had an employee “watching” them. He refused to brand them and instead let them roam freely wherever they wanted to go.
Neighboring cattlemen noticed the unbranded cattle and began to brand them and add them to their own herds. By the time Maverick noticed the error of his ways he was missing much of his original heard. He immediately sold what was left and accepted his loss but the name Maverick stuck. 
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says a “maverick” is “a person who refuses to follow the customs or rules of a group”. And of course the immediate question is “what does this have to do with UK Basketball?”
Much discussion recently concerning UK Basketball has focused on various players not performing on the court as they have been requested by their coaches. So much so that at a recent point in the season John Calipari said players had been told in a timeout to do one thing and immediately went out on the floor and did something different. Frequently he is seen wildly gesturing at the players during the games trying to get them to perform a certain way. 
What makes that any different from previous years? One thing. Some of those players continue to start and play significant minutes  while continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again. Selfish mistakes. Lack of effort mistakes. Lack of focus mistakes. After 27 basketball games players should be listening and working together to implement the instructions they are receiving. Some are and some are not. 
One most recent discussion centered around the struggles of UK shooting guard Hamidou Diallo. Here is a quote from Coach Calipari, “Let’s think about it, It’s your son and he’s struggling. It’s your son now, not somebody else’s son. Your son. Would you want me to just bench him and say, ‘We’ll worry about it next year?’ That’s what you’d want me to do with your son?”. 
To further explain his position he said, “I may not play you as much, but I’m going to play you, and if you are doing what we’re asking you to do, I’m going to encourage you,” Calipari said. “That is someone’s son, just like the others. Now, it would probably be easier when a guy plays poorly, just say you’re out and I’m going with these seven. I’m just not going to do that.”
Knowing that some players aren’t doing things they are being asked to do leaves an interesting dilemma for a coach who is 27 games into the season. He can continue on playing players that don’t seem to want to follow the plan – or can’t – in the interest of being a “players first” program or he can put them on the bench and shorten his rotation to the number of guys that stick to the plan, give effort and continue to try to improve. 
It appears from Coach Calipari’s comments he is sticking with the former. Here’s what he had to say about what he intends to do. “I’m the one that’s buying time for guys which may be costing us some games, but I’m going to continue to do it,” Calipari said. “I told you when I walked in the door, this is going to be about the players first, and I’m trying to stay that course.”
John Calipari is a Hall of Fame coach that doesn’t usually follow the herd. He does things his way, all the way. And like all coaches sometimes it works well and sometimes it doesn’t. This year seems to be one of those years when the formula might not be working. 
Another Hall of Fame coach – John Wooden – once said, “If a player’s not doing the things he should, put him on the bench. He’ll come around.” That philosophy seems to have been around since the beginning of coaching. Throughout the history of basketball that methodology has generally worked well on most teams but of course each coach must do what they believe is best for their team. After all, one of the reasons John Calipari is the current coach of UK Men’s Basketball is because he is a maverick. He does things his way, all the way. 
Sometimes being a maverick can lead to new discoveries. Other times it can lead you into a ditch. Unfortunately during the process you never know where you are going to end up. 


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  1. I think it’s time to accept what this team is and quit putting to much negative thoughts of what the players and coach Cal are doing. There’s to much press of ink of all about the negative things, it’s about time to write some thing positive for a change about this team. They deserve it there just kids. It easy saying than get it done. Go Cats!!!

    1. Okay…Why don’t you start things off with the “positives” you’re seeing?

  2. This has been the debate since Calipari arrived, and his defensiveness on this issue makes it clear that he understands two things. First, he understands that a very large, and I believe growing, segment of the BBN wants the program first, with the understanding that when the program enjoys success, the players will also enjoy success. Second, he understands that the idea that his players first emphasis is not always in the program’s best interest has legs.

    I am in the “Program First” corner of this debate.

  3. Cal is a salesman and I have no problem with that, BUT…
    His old recruiting sales pitch has grown stale. Recruits, their families, and the fans are simply not buying into Cal’s pitch as they once did.
    He needs a new approach and he needs Orlando Antigua back on the recruiting trail.
    Kentucky Basketball fans expect to see the top players waiting in line to sign with UK because they expect to win championships, first and foremost.

  4. I am probably so old that I’m totally irrelevant. It has always been my belief that education is about nurturing and developing the young. The Boston Celtics are about the Boston Celtics. These are two different worlds. One is education and the other is business. Ok, I do understand athletics has become big business, but the primary purpose of educational institutions and private enterprise are fundamentally different. Confuse the two and everyone loses something fundamentally important.

  5. I am not a fan of the “OAD” approach, never have been, and that is Calipari’s system. That said, I don’t think Calipari, deep down, dwells a whole lot at all on the reality of BBN’s passion for this program, as did the legend Adolph Rupp, the man who built it. Calipari is obsessed with the idea of putting players in the NBA at the expense of hanging championship banners, whether they are ready or not. The proof of that are statements made by him, as outlined in this piece. It was excitingly different in his early years at UK. He was very successful and it was addicting to many, but his approach is beginning to bother some of us long time UK fans now, because we want the program elevated above individuals. A lucrative NBA career is still a viable option to many players at the end of a stellar college career, and I mean 3 or 4 years, plus they will be better prepared skill wise. UK is an educational institution first, not an NBA farm team. I believe when Calipari begins to lose out on top talent in the yearly recruiting wars, his days at UK will be numbered , he will make a quick exit.

    1. At the end of the day, the money comes into play and I just don’t think the university is getting its money’s worth out of Cal. I think he probably realizes that he’s dropped the ball and things must change for the better if he wants to continue drawing that big paycheck. I sincerely hope he can get things worked out soon or the athletic department may have to punt.

    2. Pup is on target. At first, Cal was the only guy preaching the “players first” philosophy and it brought him the best of the best. When Coach K started courting one and dones, the tide turned. Duke is a premier educational school and Coach K is very by most as the best college coach so its no surprise that the best of the best are flocking to Duke. He has shown that he can get players in the NBA too. Brad Calipari will graduate in 2 years. Don’t be surprised if Cal doesn’t leave with him.

  6. I for one have always been a PLAYER 1ST guy long before Cal got here. UK will always be ok as is evident by 5 coaches with National Championships. No problem there. I have only been a fan since 74 so I don’t remember Rupp coaching. Age seems to be a factor in the school 1st guys(I could be wrong). To me when I see stuff like the SEC passed out an average of 40 million dollars this year to the member schools I say why not be player 1st(not asking for reason why I have heard them all). It seems to me that lots have been upset since Cal first made the statement and were just waiting to voice that displeasure. This is not a new topic and the only reason we are having this discussion is because this group is not living up to the expectations. Didn’t have this talk when Cal was going to three Final Fours in 4 years. But hey. It just a sign of the times.

    Players 1st

    1. What exactly does “players 1st” really mean. In Calipari’s world I believe it is getting his special players who he recruited heavily to the NBA quickly, and with a big pay day, after a mere 1 or at most 2 years spent at UK. Is that your definition of PF’s? Many players on his teams that have had good talent, and could have been developed into very good players, veteran players, never get much playing time at all. They ride the bench their whole career. So explain to me how that is putting those players first. I say it should be UK and team first, from the head man on down the bench. If the 5* won’t listen to coaching, sit his A$$ on the bench and play another guy who will at least give effort and do as he is told. I understand playing your best players is necessary, but the goal of developing a talented, and veteran team of hard nosed basketball players who are all in for UK, and who respect the legacy of this program to me is paramount. We can all say we are players first in the sense that we want to see all these players excel, represent UK well, and have a chance to play professionally, not just a select few of NBA hopefuls every year. With Calipari at the helm I don’t think that is his plan. As long as he wins, and signs overwhelming talent every year, he will succeed. Have a few years in a row like this one, and he will be in serious trouble with BBN.

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