Talking About Practice—By Dr. John Huang
"We talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talking about practice.”
With all due respect to Allen Iverson, practice does make perfect. At least that’s what Kentucky basketball head coach John Calipari has been emphasizing with fans and media alike during this difficult early season stretch of games.
A late game meltdown defeat (86 – 77) in double overtime to Michigan State and a surprisingly lackluster blowout loss (88 – 72) to Gonzaga within a five-day period has much of the Big Blue Nation in an uproar. Less than two weeks into the young season, many are already proclaiming that the Cats are toast and that Calipari has finally lost his fastball for good.
To be fair, are these disappointing defeats simply symptoms of a lack of practice time together? After all, Oscar Tshiebwe and Sahvir Wheeler—two vital returning cogs in Kentucky’s hunt for a ninth national title—have both missed games and practices due to knee injuries. Daimion Collins also lost out on some much-needed court time due to the tragic passing of his father. For a team with so much returning experience and depth—even with three key players sitting on the sidelines—you’d think the team would be much more cohesive on the court than what we’ve seen thus far.
Plus, didn’t this team have all that practice time earlier this summer with their four exhibition games in the Bahamas?
“All that stuff we were doing [in the Bahamas], it was team camaraderie,” Calipari explained in his press conference after the win against North Florida. “So we were running two things. That was it. And everything was about, all right, let’s get in shape. Let’s fly up and down the court. Let’s work on spacing.”
I’ll cut Calipari some slack. As a Hall of Fame coach, he’s certainly earned the benefit of the doubt. But most Basketball Bennys find it hard to believe that guys like Oscar or Sahvir—both veterans of the college basketball wars—have forgotten how to play the game they’ve been playing their whole lives simply because they’ve missed a couple of practices. The notion that his players “didn’t even know the plays” is ludicrous.
If lack of practice is the reason for the disconcerting performances, then maybe that explains why Calipari still had four starters—including Oscar and his bum knee—on the court against North Florida, even when Kentucky was up by 40 points with less than seven minutes to go in the game.
“My knee feels good, it feels really good,” Tshiebwe said after easily dispatching the Ospreys 96 – 56 on Wednesday night. “Because I have not been playing with the injury, Coach Cal wanted to make sure that I get in with [the other starters].
Calipari has always claimed that he’s coaching for March. The implication is that—in the long run—these early losses in November don’t really amount to much. Unfortunately, even by Calipari’s self-proclaimed gold standard, his coaching in March of late has been a big disappointment. His last Final Four appearance was in 2015. Furthermore, Kentucky missed the NCAA tournament altogether in 2021 and had that shocking first-round exit to Saint Peter’s last year.
If truth be told, the regular season just isn’t that much fun anymore either. Beating schools like Howard, South Carolina State, or North Florida by a gazillion points benefits nobody. Meanwhile, losing to the likes of Michigan State or Gonzaga can be downright demoralizing. Especially this year, when a No. 1 seed playing in the Yum Center for a chance to go to the Final Four is yours for the taking, these resume-sapping losses can easily come back to bite you on Selection Sunday.
My beef with Coach Cal isn’t because he lost games he easily could have won. It’s because he’s lowered our expectations and forced Kentucky fans to accept mediocrity. Since when is it okay to lose to wannabe blue bloods like Michigan State or Gonzaga? IT’S NOT!
Calipari tells fans to just be patient because it’s going to take the team a little while to get their act together. While that may be true, it’s not exactly what fans want to hear. Kentucky has already relinquished their previously held all-time wins lead to Kansas. With every additional loss, they’re falling further and further behind.
Big Blue Nation deserves better. In spite of key players missing practice, they need their Hall of Fame coach to step up, accept accountability, and coach the team to some big upcoming wins.