“Normally I wouldn't do this, but I want to make sure that I don't forget. I'm getting old; I do forget stuff now and then. The impact that Bam had on that game yesterday, some of you who write about basketball don't really watch it, may not have understood. UCLA came in with one thought: We're going to make this really hard on Bam. So he sacrificed. He had five assists. He created shots for both Dom and opened up the lane for De'Aaron Fox. He still tried to fight and rebound. Never says a word. So the impact on the game that he had, unless you really understood what was going on, they made that decision, and he rode with it. “Now, he did walk a couple times. He should have scored a couple more baskets. But the reality of it is he played well. The other is Isaiah. When we talk on that court, when we're talking, we are really good. When we don't talk, we are really bad. And he leads us. He gets the other guys to talk. He's playing five positions on both offense and defense. He'll do whatever you need him to do. And at the end of the game when they started pressing, if you watched, he was running the press attack and put us where we needed to go.
“But that stuff doesn't show up in stats. But when you're coaching, you understand the importance of it. So I felt I needed to say that.”
I know how difficult it is to get to this point; what sense can you share with us of how special it may be here that you get to share it, not only about Big Blue Nation but also your Memphis friends, in person here, almost two-for-one?
“Well, Ellen and I, we had some people that couldn't be at the reception came to a practice. Last night we had wings, and my man from Ching's Wings, Lafayette, came over to see us. That stuff is great.
“But the reality of it is after we did that reception and we had a couple hundred friends come and see us, it's been all about this basketball team. You know, it wouldn't matter where we were playing. I'm having fun because of these guys. I just appreciate the fact that they're fighting and doing it and doing it together and sharing. De'Aaron had it going, and they all accepted it.
“We played games where Malik has had it going. We've had games where the guy controlling the game has been Isaiah. No one says a word. We've had games -- every once in a while, about every 10 games, they throw it to you, Bam? Would you say? If he doesn't travel. But this has been a fun ride.
“Now, I'll say it again. We don't know what to expect. I just want these kids to go out there and have a ball, but we're the youngest team. Out of 68 teams in this thing, we were the youngest team. One of the veteran teams is North Carolina, and they are outstanding. I mean, I watched it. I watched tape from last night and through this morning, and ooh, they're good. Guard play, big. Jackson had 40 on us last time we played. I mean, they're good.”
Even though Kentucky and Carolina have only played three times in the NCAA Tournament, when you guys met in December, is this something that you had hoped would happen, anticipated that it would happen?
“No. I haven't watched much of their games because I get focused on my team, but I turned on something, and Joel Berry made three fives in a row. I don't remember what game it was. It was like, oh, my gosh, and I remember watching them play and I'm thinking, please don't put them in our bracket, and there they are in our bracket. Probably someone heard me think that, and said oh, that's what he doesn't want. They're going in that bracket. But you don't do it for that. Somebody said does playing somebody help? Well, it probably helps both of us in preparation. We know we've done it once, but the reality of it is that game was so long ago, I don't think Pinson played. I think the guard was hurt. I think Joel was hurt. When I watched the tape, it's like, ooh, my gosh. Both teams are better; let me say that.”
John, this would be your third Final Four in four years. Why do you think there are so many critics of the one-and-done culture?
“Well, I think probably throughout my career, I've been disruptive. Like every once in a while, I speak my mind and walk into different leagues and jobs and have to build and go and have to disrupt. With this, it's disrupting. It's not the norm. It's not what it's supposed to be. But if you care about these kids, and you really care, it's more about them than anything else, and I come back to this. If they'd chose not to play, we don't have a tournament. This tournament is about them. It's not about me as a coach. It's not about you as the media. It's not about the fan. It's about these kids.
“I think that what we were able to do -- and it was not by design, I'm not that smart -- but we had five guys leave, John Wall and the boys, DeMarcus, five guys, first round, and all of a sudden, it's like, what just happened. And you know what? Miss Veronica, Devin Booker's mom hit me last night, and we went back and forth, and she even mentioned, I think Devin being your sixth man helped him and it's driving him. He was the sixth man. He scored 70. He scored 70. And he wasn't even a starter here, because he accepted that you have to do this together.
“I would hope people look at this team and say, how are these kids sharing, how do they play this hard, how do they have this much poise when people like try to rough them up and try to create stuff, and they don't respond. How is that? Because they're good kids. They come from good families. They're driven. They're wired that way, and they're unselfish.”
De'Aaron Fox always says the right thing, he's very polished. He doesn't open up a lot to us. Can you speak a little bit about what kind of person you have in this point guard?
“When he's excited, he's Chatty Cathy. He talks like he just did. But you have all these kids up here. How much have you heard from Derek? Like Derek is not saying a whole lot. But if you talk to Malik, he's going to give you -- or Bam, they'll give you three-word answers. But we were walking down the hallway, and you can't believe how they're talking amongst each other and laughing and joking and they're all over Bam, and Bam is all over them.
“For me to be behind it seeing it, that's what this is about. They're going to remember this experience together when this is over, and that's why you want them to just -- all of them have success. You want them all -- I'm so happy for Dom and Michael and Isaac, the way they're playing. You want them to leave this situation or this experience and take it with them, and it's, man, we did this together. Man, we learned to share. We talk about servant-leadership in this program. It means you're more about your teammate than yourself. That's what it means, and we try to teach that, and we try to live that, and these kids have done that.”
You played Carolina in the 2011 East Regional Final in Newark. Do you see any similarities at all between that game and this one?
“They were really good then, too, and Brandon Knight got on a roll and was playing and dragged the team. But so was Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb. I mean, that team, Darius Miller, Josh Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins. What I've just said to you, a bunch of those guys were professional, too.
“So we had a good team. We were a little bit overlooked because we were so young. At that time being young really affected you. They'd say, well, they can't be that good, they're young. People tried to use that in 2012 until we started playing games, and it didn't. But back then, Carolina if I remember right, they had some really talented guys, and it was an exciting game.”
John, I know you haven't watched a lot of North Carolina, but what --
“Well, I have this morning and late last night. So I've seen about five of their games, plus our game with them.”
What's the difference that you've seen between Jackson between when you played them in December and what you're seeing from him now?
“He's the same. He's still scoring the same way. He makes open threes if you don't play him. He curls in the lane and scores. He isolates, and he gets to the rim. He had 40 on us, and then I'm watching, maybe it was just that game, and like I'm watching all these other games, no, it wasn't just that game. He can get you a bunch of different ways. He's a tough match-up for any team.”
John, Mike White last night said late, with four seconds left, he's kind of glad he didn't have a timeout to stop Chiozza running down the court and hitting the shot to win the game. Question: Why do coaches maybe feel the need to try to set up that play late in the game, and what's your personal philosophy?
“Well, I'd let it go and watch and then be ready to scream timeout if it looks ugly. But I want them to just play on, and that's what we practice. You know, I'm not one -- I like to go home with timeouts, three. I like the players to work through their issues. Unless we're going to lose, then I'll call a timeout to change something. Sometimes I'm calling a timeout because we just look winded.
“But I think if you're going to be a good team and you're playing for March, which is what we always do, you're using the season to learn, and it's not game to game. And if there are issues that are happening that you must stop them every time, I don't know how they grow. I think they've got to work through some of the stuff themselves. In a late game like that, I'll give you an example why I don't like calling it, okay.
“Maybe you have a 30-second timeout. So you call a timeout, and your guys are walking over. Come on, come on, come on. Okay, guys, now here's what we're going to do. We're going to run this play, and this is what it is, okay. You got it? Coach, what if they go zone. Oh, yeah, yeah, if they go zone, we're going to run this, all right, and here's how we're going to do this. All right, how are we getting it in if they're -- oh, we're going to go (buzzer sounds) let's go, let's go, just give it to Jim and go get one.
“Why put the game back in his hands, the other coach? I will never call a timeout if the other coach doesn't have one because I'm letting it -- I'm not going to do him a favor. Just count that you've done enough in practice, they know the kind of shot you're looking for, they know the situation. Then you don't have to.
“But if I look up, I can remember Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso and I wasn't going to call a timeout, and the first ball was almost stolen and the second ball was almost stolen. I think it was at Xavier and I called a timeout -- timeout -- because we were going to throw it away. But that's 20 years ago. More than 20 years ago, oh, my gosh, 30 years ago.”
You've obviously had a lot of success with freshmen stars who went on to the NBA. A lot of coaches in the country haven't had that kind of success. Why hasn't the model been duplicated in recent years?
“Well, I'm not the only one coaching young guys that are having success, but I think part of the thing for us is that we're not making outlandish promises. If you talk to any of the kids that we've recruited, they'll tell you he never promises you'll start or how many minutes you'll get or how many shots you'll get. What we commit to is you will be a better player, you'll have the best chance to reach your dreams, and if it's ego, minutes, shots, you're the face, we're going to put your name in the rafters; then go somewhere else. You can't come here.
“If you want to shoot 30 balls a game, even Devin Booker was told this. Now, Devin hit me today and said, could you have imagined if you'd have let me shoot like you do Malik, what I'd have been doing? He hit me with that this morning, and I told him -- I won't tell you what I told him.
“But they all know they're going to share, and a kid like Malik -- both Malik and De'Aaron took -- their coaches will tell you, between 35 and 40 shots a game. Both of them. Whether it was Briscoe, whether it was Derek, all these guys, and they have to share, and they know it coming here. And the kids that we have coming in for the next year, they know it. It's going to be a great defensive team. We're going to share. We're all going to grow. We're going to be the best version of ourselves. I try to tell you that it's not about numbers, it's about you as a player and as a person and as a teammate.”
I know that you're involved in getting your team ready, but I know you're also friends with the Millers, Archie Miller was named the coach of Indiana. What kind of coach did they get in him?
“If I were hiring a coach, I would hire Archie. I say that because, one, we all grew up with his father. Like his father coached all of us, Sean, all of us that came through there. And he's a basketball -- that's what he does. He's a basketball guy. Not afraid. He's got a fight in him, and he's got a will, and the kids love playing for him.
“I think he'll do a great job there. I mean, it's not an easy job. None of these jobs are easy, but that's not an easy job, either, and you have to walk in there wanting that challenge, kind of like wanting Kentucky. If you don't want this, don't -- all that goes along with it, don't come here, and it's the same with Indiana. You've got to want that, and he did, obviously, or he wouldn't have taken that job.”
Do you have a system or something during the season on how you get the freshmen acclimated because you can't expect them to do what they're doing now back in November or December.
“It's called, I age very fast. Every day that you sit at your desk, you've got to keep telling yourself it's a process. It's a process, and you cannot skip steps. The reason we had a chance to win every game in '14 and '15 was because guys stayed that we didn't expect to stay. Now we had a full roster of nine, ten guys. That's why we were able to do what we did. Veterans, with these young guys, reality of it is you can't play in December, November like it's March, because it's just not possible. It's going to be a process, and you've got to really trust your kids, and the only way you can trust them is they trust you. You've got to be about them and their success and their growth more than anything else.
“If not, they're not trusting you. They're going to look at you and say, this guy is about the program, the program. Look at the banners. This is the program. The kids say, yeah, how about me and my family? This is about -- and with us, we talk about family. And I get it. I mean, I grew up like a lot of these kids, and I get it. I get their parents. They were like my parents. I get it. And I don't take it lightly that I have an opportunity with a -- I want to call them geniuses because they're a genius with what they've been given, most of it God-given. But they've been given something that's going to have them, like the other 30 kids in the league that I've had, be able to do things for themselves and their families and their communities and get involved. I don't take that lightly.
“Now, we still want to win every game. Oh, he doesn't care about winning, he only cares about getting guys to the NBA. Really? If you pin that on me, I'll probably say, fine, you can say that. Say that a lot. But it's not the case, because we've got to convince these kids if they're really to achieve and learn what it means to be successful, you must win, which means you must share, and you must be servant-leaders, and you must be great teammates. If you can't do that, you really didn't get what we teach here.
“You know, I've been blessed. I've had -- how many parents have said, almost in tears, I'm giving you my child. This is our opportunity for our family. And it's just the stuff that we do. Why do you always go to the green room? It's graduation day. Do you go to your child's graduation or do you say I can't go there because they'll see me there. What? This is their graduation. I'm going to be there. And I'm going to be at the table, and I'm going to hug them and I'm going to laugh with them, and their parents get to breathe for the first time. They get to breathe. And I see it, and I'm there.”
You had Bam and Isaac in there, in the game at the same time. We haven't seen that often this year. What was your thought process putting that lineup in?
“I wanted to see how they would play together, and I also looked at their lineup. They have two bigs. And I felt that he could play those kids. Now, if they have a 6'7" 4 man, unless I put Bam on the 4 or a very active 5 man, I maybe wouldn't have done it, but he played well. And this is another game. Maybe we can play two bigs in this game.”
Both Kentucky and North Carolina are the two winningest teams in the NCAA Tournament. Have you ever played in a regional game of this magnitude?
“Let me just say this: Every regional game that I've played in is this magnitude because you get a chance to keep playing. I don't know how many I've coached in. 11? And they're all of that magnitude. I can just tell you that when I look back on some of them and just great memories of a team. Just funny, though, after we win, I go in the locker room, there's no -- like it's what's next? They're not like doing back flips. They're like, what's next? And that's kind of being at Kentucky.”
Is there a specific moment or game that you realized that this team got or it clicked with them what you were wanting them to do defensively?
“Well, when we rebooted, that's what it was all about. It was about that, and it was about ball movement. And we just said, we're going back to these two things and we're going to get better at them, and they bought in. They want to win. They want to be told.
“Look, the structure we have, the discipline we have within the program. Kids will complain about discipline and complain way more about lack of discipline, lack of structure. And in this program, these kids, they come here, tell me what I have to do. I'm here because I want to be coached. Get on me. Like people, how do you get on these kids? They want to be challenged. They want to be pushed. They don't want to just come and do what they want to do.
“And so that being the case, I would say it was probably about three, four weeks after we did that you could see that, uh-oh, we're going in the right path.”
What has Derek Willis meant to this program, not just in the last four years but in this run so far the last 14 wins here?
“Well, the best thing for me, and again, people will say, well, everybody is one-and-done. They're not all one-and-done. We've had 14 players graduate in seven years. Three will graduate from this team. So we'll have 17 players graduate.
“Derek Willis, Dom and Mychal Mulder will have college degrees. There are kids that I get a chance to see for four years and see them grow, and it's a feeling that you're like, wow. They go from young men to men. They go from unsure of themselves to sure of who they are or where they want to go. You know, Dom and Derek have meant so much to the program because, again, they came and said, we know we're going to have to sit for a while. We just want our opportunity.
“And I told them every year, you play as though you're going to start, and we'll see where this goes, and they both had their opportunities and they're loving it and our fans. They're going to be -- in the state of Kentucky, you look at kids that are going to be born in the next year, many Doms and Dereks will be named. Many, because of those two.”
The University announced your two-year extension the other day. Any particular reason you wanted to do that now before the season ends?
“Well, they approached me about it, and it was fine. I mean, I didn't -- there was not like a negotiation stuff, we'd like to do this, we're doing this with other coaches, what do you think? I said, yeah, if you want to extend, I'm not going to say no, that's fine. But there was no, like, negotiation.”
I think it's been about 10 years since Carolina had a one-and-done kind of player. Do you find in recruiting that the two programs are going after sort of a different profile of kid? Do you think it's by design based on how they recruit?
“You'd have to ask the coach that, but what I do is design from Coach Smith. When Coach Smith was at North Carolina during the season, he said, it's all about the team. The minute this season ends, it's going to be all about each individual player and what's best for them. That's what Coach Smith did, and that's what I do.
“Now, if he were coaching now, would he do what I'm doing? I bet you he would. Maybe not as many, but he used to recruit -- he was so far ahead of his time, for the 12th, 11th, 10th position. He recruited specifically with what he wanted those players to look like. He was so far ahead of this game and the coaching profession and how he dealt with the program that we still are all learning from him.”
How important was the 2012 example of sharing the ball, your championship team, to the teams that have come after that and the players that come after that?
“There were two things with that team. One, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist took the fifth-most shots, and Anthony Davis took the fourth-most shots. Karl Towns took the fifth-most shots on his team. They're doing okay. But the second thing was that I'm able to tell them, it doesn't -- shots, it doesn't matter. If you can play and you can do this, it happens. In our program, points and that stuff doesn't matter for where you're going to be drafted and your success. But the other thing for all of us, winning the National Title took off all the negative stuff, and then when another program did it, it became nonexistent.
“So now we can worry about the kids instead of worrying about what everybody is saying. Well, what does it mean, or -- we're coaching kids and we're working within the rules that we have, and this is what we do. Some do it one way, some do it another. If you were talking -- I would tell you you'd have to talk to other coaches to find out their take on it, but that team helped us recruit, no question.”
You talked last week about graduate transfers hurting mid-majors. Can you walk me through your evolution on that topic and does that mean you won't be taking graduate transfers in the future?
“Well, the Julius Mays thing -- and when I talk about it, I'll bring up Julius, that he really wanted to come to Kentucky. And I'm happy that we took him because he is one of the greatest kids I've ever coached, and he gave us a veteran guard. But at the end of the day, anyone that has a board with all the graduate transfers on it, like who can we get from here, think about it; those are players who are playing for a mid-major program that has invested in them, and they have a year to go, and it's that coach and that program's time. If that kid wants to leave, just make him sit out. You can leave and just sit out.
“By playing right away, I don't think it's good for the kids. Many of them leave the school, don't even tell the coach. They text him and say, I'm going. What? How about teaching them to be a man. If you want to sit down with the coach and say I'm thinking about doing this, what do you think? Well, let's talk through this. You have coaches now that are holding kids back academically so they can't graduate. Is that what we want? I mean, it's real simple; it's awful for mid-major coaches, for programs, and I don't think it's good for the kids. I really don't.
“I mean, if they had to sit out and they wanted to go to another program, I'd say, that's fine. But to play right away and have all of us trying to figure out who it is, you know, it's not -- I don't feel good about that. And again, the Julius thing at the time, it was just starting. I don't regret doing it. But obviously we haven't done it since.”