A Project that Needed Tweaking

Kentucky hardly came into month of March like a lion, but have made its third Final Four in four seasons - and a meeting with Wisconsin in the national semifinals Saturday night - because of some subtle changes Coach John Calipari's put into action.

MADISON - John Calipari admits this wasn't his finest coaching job from start to finish.

With a group full of uber-talented freshmen, Kentucky's head coach admitted that he tried to skip some steps in the process to take advantage of a roster full of high school All-Americans, most of who will probably be playing at the next level as early as this fall.

It could explain why Kentucky was struggling to reach its full potential in the weeks leading up to postseason play. So what changed that the Wildcats (28-10) are chasing their ninth national championship in program history and second in three seasons when it faces Wisconsin (30-7) in the semifinals on Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas?

Without really revealing anything during a Final Four teleconference Monday, Calipari simply said that he waited two months longer to tweak some things with his lineup than he probably should have.

"When I did the first tweak, I told everybody you will see a change and they saw it," said Calipari, saying the tweaks will be revealed after the season. "They couldn't believe it. Before we went to the tournament, I tweaked another thing and I said you will see the change, and they've all seen it."

Whatever he did, the Wildcats' youth have responded.

Starting the season as the preseason No.1 pick, Kentucky didn't enter March Madness on the bubble, but certainly entered with a dud when it lost to a South Carolina team that finished the season 14-20. The Wildcats shot 26.9 percent from the field, which included 14 straight misses from the field at one point, and Calipari was ejected before the home students rushed the court.

The Wildcats lost two in a row for the first time this season because of the shooting, as Kentucky shot just 34 percent in a 71-67 overtime loss to an Arkansas team that beat then twice on the season.

But over the last seven games, Kentucky is 6-1, only losing to No.1 Florida by one point in the SEC championship game in Atlanta, and have rolled through a NCAA tournament gauntlet that featured an undefeated Wichita State team, the American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament champion (not to mention fierce in-state rival) Louisville and Big Ten regular season champion Michigan.

"Part of that process if failing fast, sometimes failing often," said Calipari. "The final step to all this is give into each other, lose yourself to the team and less is more. That really takes time when you are playing seven freshmen in your top eight and each of them averaged 25 points per game in high school."

Calipari cited that if his young team was ready to accept his tweaks two months ago, Kentucky wouldn't have been an eight seed having to beat a nine, one, four and two to get to its third Final Four in four years. That speaks to how good of the talent level is on Kentucky's roster, especially since they beat three of the top 68-teams in the tournament: Wichita State (3), Michigan (6) and Louisville (13).

"Coaches always had to coach emotion, intensity, effort, and that means you have to get a little nasty," he added. "You can't accept it. You can't let them do what they want to do. You have to coach body language. I've also had to coach unselfish play. I'm not coaching any of that now. Now I'm coaching basketball. People are saying, ‘Boy, he looks more relaxed.' I am more relaxed, because I know I don't have to look out there and see a guy not going hard, pouting or a guy passing up a teammate to take five bad shots. I'm not dealing with any of that. This team has been empowered now, and now I can just coach basketball."

"I did such a poor job early with this team," he added. "In the end, we got the plane down barely. We almost ran out of runway."


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