Once every few seasons in the John Calipari era, Kentucky has put together a group that earned the label “special” from moment one.
What are those groups? I think we can say confidently that in the 2009-10, 2011-12, 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons the Cats had a squad that was superior to the rest in Cal’s tenure.
Since the 2017 season that featured now NBA superstars De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo, UK has had teams that maybe not quite hit that level either due to injuries or lack of talent even though they all had Final Four potential. Now the question is, what level could this year’s team reach in terms of Kentucky squads under Calipari?
While it is too early to know for sure, assistant coach Joel Justus believes that this group does in fact have the potential to be special. In a press conference today previewing the team, he pointed to their work ethic as a sign that they have the potential to be a great squad.
“You have a group that comes into the gym, and wants to play — wants to play hard. They’re excited to be here. And I think when we’ve had special teams, we’ve had really good teams in my six years here, when you have special teams there’s a little bit of a different buzz kind of in the gym, and I think we have that right now. Our guys are excited, they’re having fun, but they’re also competing,” he said.
Addiction to being in the gym is not uncommon for those UK teams under Calipari that proved to be among the best in the country and in his tenure. Former UK forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist once started “The Breakfast Club”, which was a group of players on the 2011-12 team that worked out at 6 a.m. That work ethic came in handy for the Cats in April, as they won Kentucky’s first national title since 1998.
Coach Justus admitted in the presser that having enthusiasm and the drive to get better is not really something that is coached, but instead, they find it early in recruiting.
“That’s something that, as a coach, you don’t really — it’s hard to coach that. But it’s something that you can recruit. Something you can identify — if kids want this. I think when you’re going after those kinds of guys early, you find out what they’re about. You find out if they wanna be challenged, you find out if they want to be in a setting where they have to go every single day or they’re gonna be exposed. And I think that’s — that’s how you become built different, is when you embrace that from the beginning,” he said.
UK Head Coach John Calipari is, of course, a huge part of bringing animation and a fiery sense to the game. In a press conference on Monday, Creighton transfer Davion Mintz pointed to Calipari as a reason for his motivation to get in the gym.
“He’s definitely fun to play for. I mean, I look forward to going to practice every day. Practice is at 3 today and I’m excited. I can’t stop thinking about it. And that’s serious. I mean, it is very challenging, it’s hard, but it’s a fun culture. It’s a fun place to be every day.”
The Cats are still two days away from starting practice, and are also a long way from beginning the regular season, but work ethic has proven to be an early sign for the fate and destiny of a team. If they can keep that up, holding the national championship trophy in April could become more and more realistic.