LEXINGTON, Ky. – John Calipari stepped away from the sea of tape recorders, microphones and cameras and walked quickly down the hall toward Kentucky’s glistening practice court inside the Joe Kraft Center.
One problem. The door was locked. The new Kentucky head coach sheepishly tried another one. Locked.
Finally, with a shrug of his shoulders, college basketball’s first $4 million man turned to a member of the Kentucky sports information staff for help.
Forgive him if he hasn’t received his keys yet – it has been a busy couple of weeks.
“Has it been two weeks? It feels like six months,” Calipari said with a laugh.
From trying to give the Wildcats a crash course in his dribble-drive to wooing some of the nation’s top recruits to trying to find a new home for his family, Calipari hasn’t had a lot of time to figure out his way through Kentucky’s $30 million practice complex.
Those things can wait. Right now, he’s got a program to rebuild.
It’s a process that’s already begun, one some of the current players know probably won’t include them.
Stars Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks have already declared for the NBA draft, though both decided to not hire an agent, leaving them the option of returning next fall. Several other players on the current roster could find themselves playing elsewhere next year if Calipari decides they don’t fit into his up-tempo system.
That fact hasn’t tempered Calipari’s spirited practices, ones that hardly resemble the grueling ones run by former coach Billy Gillispie.
Kentucky went through a final hour of drills on Wednesday, as Calipari cajoled, applauded and taught during a series of high-energy drills designed to give the Wildcats a taste of what awaits them next fall.
One minute Calipari was praising freshman forward Darius Miller for a perfectly executed layup. The next he was ordering Perry Stevenson to go hard. At one point he blew his whistle after a lightning-quick fastbreak, help up his hands and pronounced, “This is going to be who we are.’ ”
Suddenly, the somber final days of Gillispie are long gone.
“It’s definitely fun,” Meeks said. “The drills are very competitive, everybody is competing very hard, everybody’s having a great time out there. We know we can’t learn everything in the spring and he knows that also. We’re trying to keep a good attitude and hopefully it works.”
Calipari has already proven himself to be a savvy recruiter, at least when it comes to winning over his current players.
While Calipari gave Meeks and Patterson his blessing on their decision to test the NBA waters, it wasn’t exactly a coincidence that the Wildcats warmed up on Wednesday wearing blue T-shirts with the phrase “Witness” on the front. On the back was every free throw, basket and 3-pointer Meeks poured in during his school-record 54-point performance against Tennessee last month.
The school actually had the shirts made a few days after Meeks’ remarkable performance, but they remained tucked away in a drawer. Calipari thought they’d make a nice going-away present, a keepsake for the high point in a tumultuous season that ended with Kentucky out of the tournament and Gillispie getting fired.
“I love what I saw and how he played and the heart that he showed,” Calipari said of Meeks’ performance. “My team (at Memphis), we were stretching out the next day and talking about it.”
Now Calipari is talking about making over a team in his image. It began Wednesday when center DeMarcus Cousins, who had verbally committed to Memphis, signed with Kentucky.
The school didn’t announce any other commitments during the first day of the spring signing period. That could change quickly as Calipari tries to do what he was hired to do – lure more of the top prep prospects in the country to Rupp Arena.
“You’ve got to go about recruiting not really knowing who’s here, who’s not and that’s going to be a yearly thing for us I believe,” Calipari said.
He knows he was hired to turn the Wildcats around quickly.
“I want to unleash these guys,” Calipari said. “I don’t want them looking over at me. … I want them to turn and go.”
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