Kentucky's John Calipari is as much a political figure as a coach. Of course, that has to do with the intensity of his fans, sure, but the most glaring ways Calipari seems larger than UK basketball (and not in a bad way) is in how he runs his media operation. That operation includes a massive Twitter following and his own active, editorially inclined website, a gambit straight from the political public relations playbook.
Calipari is also sensitive to expectation management, something he does as frequently as any coach in the country. And in last week's rather politician-esque open letter to fans, Calipari did just that, warning Big Blue Nation of his 2010-11 team's potentially high learning curve.
Where we stand right now with toughness and rebounding, we probably need to struggle early because only a crisis brings about change. I hate to lose – you all know I hate to lose – but at times it’s necessary for a team like this to take its knocks early in order to get them to realize the importance of rebounding and defense.
The same may hold true in league play – we may need to be in some dogfights early during SEC competition to get this team to understand and realize how every possession matters and that it’s not for “funsies” any more. You’re either into winning or you’re into yourself – you can’t be into both.
Calipari also said his team "might be the worst rebounding team playing basketball today," which sounds a little bit hyperbolic. But, in the end, his assessment of his 2010-11 team isn't overplayed or undervalued. It is, believe it or not, dead on:
This year’s team will need to have a steady climb – how steep is that climb? I don’t know yet. How big is that mountain we’re going to climb? I don’t know yet. People who are rating us right now be it high or low, they don’t really know – they’re all guessing. If I don’t have any idea where we are, you can be sure no one else does!
Agreed! No one knows what to expect from this year's Kentucky team. That's not only thanks to the still-lingering eligibility case of touted forward Enes Kanter, though there's no question Kanter's presence will be a huge difference for Kentucky this year. It's also because Calipari's team is so young. You never know what to expect from freshmen, and even though most Calipari teams are young and star-studded, few are quite this young. It's a lot harder to project that youth than it is to evaluate a team with a handful of returning players. The Wildcats don't have many of those.
So while it's fair to expect this 2010-11 version to play like past Calipari teams -- defensively tough, athletic, high-flying, up-tempo, led by a great freshman point guard, and all that -- sometimes, projections are just tough. With a team this young, that goes for the coach, too.