John Calipari

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No. 15 Tennessee shows off toughness in win over No. 24 Kentucky

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The lone matchup of ranked teams on Tuesday’s schedule, a matchup between No. 15 Tennessee and No. 24 Kentucky, was not pretty by any stretch of the imagination. In the end the outcome came down to late-game execution, with Rick Barnes’ Volunteers making the plays that needed to be made on both ends of the floor.

Lamonte Turner buried a three to give Tennessee the lead with 26 seconds remaining. That was followed by a forced turnover and an Admiral Schofield dunk, and the Volunteers won by a 61-59 final score.

It’s Tennessee’s first season sweep of Kentucky since the 1998-99 season, and after ripping off three straight blowout victories the visitors called upon their toughness to pick up a critical road win.

Picked to finish 13th in the SEC’s preseason poll, Tennessee has emerged as the league’s second-best team behind No. 8 Auburn. And in a year that has seen the conference as a whole put forth an improved product on the court, the rise of the Volunteers and Tigers is the biggest development.

Auburn was picked to finish ninth, and with the FBI scandal that saw the team lose an assistant coach and two expected starters even less was expected of the Tigers in the aftermath. But here they are, sitting atop the SEC with a 21-2 record and in the top ten of the national polls for the first time in over a decade.

So what would Auburn’s success have in common with that of Tennessee? Simply put, both teams have an incredibly firm grasp of who they are. The Volunteers aren’t a team that will beat opponents with finesse; they do it with a talented, experienced rotation that can get key contributions from both starters and reserves alike.

Against Kentucky, leading scorer Grant Williams finished with ten points but tallied just three official field goal attempts (making one). A player who enters a game averaging 16.2 points per game having that few field goal attempts would be a major issue for many teams to overcome. For Tennessee, not so much thanks to the likes of Turner and Jordan Bowden.

Turner came off the bench to score a team-high 16 points, and Bowden added 13 points to go along with eight rebounds and two steals. Admiral Schofield shot just 6-for-16 from the field, but in addition to scoring 12 points he chipped in on the glass with six rebounds. Kentucky’s front court length certainly impacted Williams’ shot opportunities around the basket, but Tennessee was able to receive contributions in other areas.

It wasn’t pretty offensively, but the Volunteers managed to do enough to supplement its work on the other end of the floor.

After shooting poorly early Kentucky’s issues with ball and player movement proved to be the biggest issue late. While Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s key turnover led to the aforementioned Schofield dunk, the freshman was responsible for six of Kentucky’s seven assists.

Also, on the play in question none of Gilgeous-Alexander’s teammates did much to get into a position where a passing lane could come open for the point guard. The end result was his over-penetrating and getting caught up in multiple Tennessee defenders.

Will Kentucky be able to properly address its issues on the offensive end of the floor ahead of postseason play? That remains to be seen, and the team’s inconsistency is in large part a product of the lack of influential veterans. Sure Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones are both sophomores, but neither played a major role last season. With that being the case, there’s only so much those two can call upon when looking to help get the freshmen all headed in the same direction.

Tennessee doesn’t have that problem, and it’s a big reason why the Volunteers managed to leave Rupp Arena with the win.

And it’s also a big reason why this team is capable of doing even more as college basketball’s biggest month approaches.

Report: John Calipari’s contract demands eclipse nine-figure mark

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The Nets fired head coach Lionel Hollins and GM Billy King over the weekend, the latest casualties of a franchise that appears to have absolutely no idea how to build a winning NBA team.

And as is always the case when jobs open up in the NBA, John Calipari’s name has been lumped in the Brooklyn Nets coaching search. His name was already being bandied about as the Sacramento Kings, home of the mercurial former Kentucky star and ex-player of Cal’s, DeMarcus Cousins, are looking to head in a new direction as well.

Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo’s NBA Insider and the man they’ve built the website The Vertical around, filed his column on Calipari and the NBA early on Monday morning, and the reasons to hire him — as well as the concerns about his return to the NBA — are the same that we hear every time his name is mentioned for NBA jobs: He has such a good relationship with his former Kentucky stars that he’ll be able to amass all of them on the same NBA roster … so long as they can get past — or he can change — the grating style in which he coaches. No NBA veteran is going to sign up to be screamed at and belittled by anyone, let alone a “college coach”. That may even matter more than his coaching acumen, which his critics doubt as well.

What’s more interesting is that Woj put a number on what it would take to hire Cal away from Kentucky: 10 years, $120 million. From that column:

When Calipari spoke with minority ownership in Sacramento last spring, he told them that it would take an offer of $11 million-plus a year to get his attention, league sources said. Calipari turned down a 10-year, $80 million-plus offer with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, because he wouldn’t leave Kentucky with only an incremental raise on what is now an $8 million to $9 million annual package on campus.

Cleveland’s offer has become a baseline for Calipari’s contractual demands: He wants the 10 years and now the $12 million a year that Phil Jackson makes to run the Knicks.

Currently, Calipari has a contract that will pay him $54 million through 2022, which was extended back in May when there was speculation he may be interested in heading to New Orleans to coach Anthony Davis. It’s become almost common-place during the spring: his name gets brought up for NBA jobs, Kentucky gives him more money and more years.

Cal knows how to leverage a deal. He took to twitter Monday morning to deny the report.

“You may have heard me say this before: I absolutely have the best coaching job in sports and I plan on being at Kentucky for a long time,” Calipari wrote. “I am not negotiating with ANYBODY. My total focus is on this team and winning the next game.”

He also reiterated that he believes he already has the best job in basketball, a statement he makes everytime his name gets associated with an NBA gig.

“Anytime you can have a championship culture, anytime you can be in the hunt for championships or in this case in college in recruiting, you have one of the best jobs,” Cal said on the SEC teleconference. “You don’t have to put fans in the seats, you don’t have to raise money. Just coach basketball. It’s a great job, and one that I appreciate having and am humbled to be here.”

But it remains to be seen if there is a mutual interest here.

John Calipari on Skal Labissiere: ‘Everything is good to go’

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John Calipari had some biting words for reporters during Kentucky’s media day on Wednesday afternoon when asked about the eligibility of star freshman Skal Labissiere.

“Everything is good to go,” Calipari said, emphasizing the school’s policy against commenting on the eligibility of incoming recruits. He said five players were reviewed by the NCAA prior to last season, and some weren’t cleared to play until a week before the first game. “Every year we’ve been here, players go through the review. You won’t believe this: it’s always the best players that get the review.”

MORE: Kentucky the SEC favorite? Our league preview

“I think my team will be fine and you guys will figure it out when we go out there the first game,” he said, before going on to add, “how did this become such a huge … this became like a firestorm. Where did this come from? Feel real good what my team’s going to look like on the first day.”

You can watch the full interview session here, courtesy of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

SEC Preview: Kentucky’s favored, but watch for Vandy, Texas A&M

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SEC.

As has been the case for much of the recent past, the SEC shakes out like this: Kentucky, and then everyone else. Part of that is a result of just how good the Wildcats are and have been. Part of that is due to the fact that the SEC is a football league with the hoops side of things playing catchup. And while the gap is closing, it may be a few years before the impact is truly apparent.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kentucky is loaded again … obviously: It’s standard at this point. This group is likely not going to be making a run at 40-0 like last year’s group, but they will be making a run at a national title. Skal Labissiere will be the nation’s best big man. Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe will make up the nation’s best back court. Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress will get their shot, finally.

2. But they may not have the best freshman in the league: That title could end up going to LSU’s Ben Simmons, who, along with Skal, is a favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. The Tigers are loaded with talent this year. Along with Simmons, they bring in McDonald’s All-American Antonio Blakeney, top 40 recruit Brandon Sampson and Arizona transfer Craig Victor. Throw in returnees like Tim Quarterman, Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby, and LSU, on paper, is a top 15 team. But head coach Johnny Jones has underachieved with talented rosters before. Is this the year they break through?

3. Vanderbilt will be the second-best team in the conference: It’s tough to call them a sleeper at this point because they’re getting plenty of pub, but the Commodores are the odds-on pick to finish second in the conference behind the Wildcats. They’re anchored by Damian James, who may be the most under-appreciated player in college basketball. The 6-foot-10 junior is a legitimate All-American candidate. Throw in talented sophomores Wade Baldwin IV and Riley LaChance, and another promising recruiting class, and head coach Kevin Stallings has more than enough pieces to put together something special in Nashville. Vandy won eight of their last ten regular season games last year after starting SEC play 1-7.

4. Coaching turnover: There has been an impressive influx of coaching talent into the SEC this year, although the league did lose arguably the best coach in the sport.

  • Billy Donovan left for Oklahoma City, leaving Florida in an interesting spot with new coach Mike White. More on them in a minute.
  • Former UCLA head coach Ben Howland took over for Rick Ray at Mississippi State and immediately reeled in Malik Newman, a top ten freshman in the class.
  • Donnie Tyndall was fired due to the scandal he was involved in at Southern Miss, but Tennessee went out and picked up former Texas coach Rick Barnes.
  • Alabama missed on Gregg Marshall but they did land Avery Johnson.
  • And don’t forget, in his second season at Auburn, Bruce Pearl has things rolling on the recruiting trail

5. Keep an eye on Texas A&M, too: Billy Kennedy is not a new hire by any stretch of the imagination, but his new assistant coach — Rick Stansbury — is already paying dividends on the recruiting trail. The Aggies have a loaded recruiting class, one that is going to be afforded the luxury of a year’s worth of seasoning as veterans Danuel House, Alex Caruso, Jalen Jones and Alex Robinson lead the way this year. This is a group that can reach the Sweet 16.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “Kentucky. For sure. One pro leaves, and any pro comes in. Skal is as good as anyone they’ve had and Jamal Murray can play either guard spot, but Tyler Ulis will make them go. He can lead, and he’s perfect in his role with those other guys around them.
  • Sleeper:
    • “Mississippi State is under the radar, with Malik Newman and Ben Howland coming in. But they’re starting to get attention, so I’ll go with South Carolina. They have a lot returning. Their ability to shoot is always a question, but [freshman P.J.]Dozier can really open things up.”
    • “Georgia. They’ve got really good guards and seemingly no one is talking about them.”
  • Best player: “Skal or Ben Simmons. Simmons versatility and his passing ability — he can use both hands as well as anyone — sets him apart.”
  • Most underrated player:
    • “[Mississippi State’s Craig] Sword on the wing. He’s as athletic as can be. His shooting can be streaky at times, he’s kind of hit and miss, but he will be better this year. He’s a really good fit in their system. Also, [Vandy’s Luke] Hornet has grown. He can really shoot it from deep, and with Damian Jones focal point, Luke’s ability to stretch the court will be key.”
    • “Stefan Moody. Dude is the SEC’s leading returning scorer and can’t even make a preseason watch list.”

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Skal Labissiere, Kentucky

I’m still of the belief that Labissiere is the best player on Kentucky and, feasibly, the most talented player in the entire country. He’s a seven-footer with a back-to-the-basket game, perimeter skills and a soft jumper and that shows up when he squares up opponents. The Anthony Davis comparisons are going to flow because the they’re both No. 1 recruits and centers at Kentucky with similar body-types, but Labissiere is much more skilled offensively and much less dominant defensively. Think LaMarcus Aldridge.

Damian Jones (AP Photo)
Damian Jones (AP Photo)

THE REST OF THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM:

  • Malik Newman, Mississippi State: Newman is a high-volume scorer that can drop 25 in a half without breaking a sweat. He’ll be playing on a team where he’s going to be asked to take a lot of shots. His efficiency numbers likely won’t be great, but he’s going to score a lot.
  • Damian Jones, Vanderbilt: For my money, Jones is the single-most underrated player in college basketball this season. He may be the best big man in the country this side of Labissiere.
  • Jamal Murray, Kentucky: I’m still not sold on Murray being a future NBA star, but based on his performance at the Pan-Am Games this summer, I think he’ll end up being a very good combo-guard in college.
  • Ben Simmons, LSU: Casual fans are going to love watching Simmons play. He’s a 6-foot-9 point forward that is so talented. He’d be the National Player of the Year if he was in a different program.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
  • Tim Quarterman, LSU
  • Danuel House, Texas A&M
  • Stefan Moody, Ole Miss
  • Wade Baldwin IV, Vanderbilt

BREAKOUT STAR: Yante Maten, Georgia

Wade Baldwin IV of Vanderbilt was an intriguing pick here, but I’m going with Maten. The 6-foot-8, 240 pound big man was somewhat buried on Georgia’s bench as a freshman last season, averaging just 18.2 minutes while watching Marcus Thornton and Nikola Djurisic. But while his playing time was limited, Maten did manage to average 5.0 points, 4.3 boards and 1.4 blocks. He’ll now step into a starting role in Georgia’s front court.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Kim Anderson, Missouri

This is just Anderson’s second season in Columbia, but things have not gone well for him. The Tigers went 9-23 last season, finished just 3-15 in the SEC and lost their top two players — freshman Teki Gill-Cesear and sophomore Johnathan Williams III — to transfer. Does Anderson have what it takes to turn the program around? If the Tigers don’t show signs of improvement this season, he may not get a chance.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Kentucky isn’t the only team from the SEC eyeing a run to the Final Four. Ain’t that right, Vanderbilt?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Watching those freshmen play. Skal Labissiere — assuming he eventually gets eligible — and Ben Simmons could end up going Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2016 NBA Draft, while Jamal Murray and Malik Newman won’t be all that far behind.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/17, Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)
  • 12/6, Vanderbilt vs. Baylor
  • 1/30, Kentucky at Kansas
  • 1/30, LSU vs. Oklahoma
  • 1/30, Iowa State vs. Texas A&M

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @kyletucker_cj

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kentucky: The Wildcats have a very strong argument to be the No. 1 team in the entire country heading into the season. Of course they’re going to be No. 1 in the SEC power rankings.
2. Vanderbilt: It’s hard not to love what Kevin Stallings brings back this season. One of the best X’s-and-O’s coaches in the sport has one of the nation’s best big men at his disposal and surrounds him with a myriad of talented shooters and scorers on the perimeter. I think this is a Sweet 16 team.
3. Texas A&M: The Aggies are in a great spot this year. Not only are they built for the future thanks to Billy Kennedy’s recruiting class, but they have enough veteran talent on their roster that they can make a run in an SEC that isn’t overly strong at the top. Daneul House and Alex Caruso get slept-on nationally.
4. LSU: From a talent perspective, LSU is second only to Kentucky in this league. But talent hasn’t kept Johnny Jones from underachieving before, so until this group proves that they can compete for an SEC title, I’ll expect them to be a borderline top 25 team that won’t feel comfortable about their NCAA tournament prospects until March.
5. Georgia: Georgia returns their veteran back court but graduates key pieces in their front court. The key to their season could end up being the development of YantTagse Maten. If he turns into an all-SEC caliber player, they should end up being a tournament team.
6. Florida: The Gators are one of the most interesting teams in college hoops this season. They lost Billy Donovan to the NBA after a disappointing year, but they also return plenty of elite talent from a team that was far more competitive than their record shows; no one in the country suffered more heart-breaking losses than the Gators last season, as it felt like they kept inventing new ways to lose basketball games. There’s talent, depth and athleticism on their perimeter (Kasey Hill, Chris Chiozza, Devin Robinson, KeVaughn Allen, Brandone Francis) and South Florida transfer John Egbunu will sneak up on some people on the interior. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike White led this group to a top four finish in the league. I can also see them heading to the NIT.
7. Auburn: I think Bruce Pearl is still a year or two away from really making Auburn competitive in the conference. That said, to me, Pearl’s presence on the sideline makes the Tigers two or three games better in league play.
8. Ole Miss: Stefan Moody is back for the Rebels this season, but they lose a ton of talent off of last year’s tournament team. Moody will put up some big numbers, but the Rebels would do well to finish in the top half of the conference this season.
9. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have some sleeper potential this season. They return five of their top six players and add top 30 recruit P.J. Dozier to the mix. But will Dozier be the difference between finishing 6-12 last season and reaching the top half of the league this season?
10. Mississippi State: Ben Howland is a terrific coach and he has a dynamic lead guard in Malik Newman, but it’s going to take more than one year and one player to turn things around in Starkville.
11. Arkansas: Mike Anderson lost the underrated Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls to the NBA and had three players get arrested for using counterfeit bills. It was a rough offseason in Fayetteville.
12. Tennessee: Rick Barnes takes over for Donnie Tyndall in Knoxville. The Vols overachieved last season and lost their best player, Josh Richardson, to graduation. Barnes will build Tennessee back up, but it will take a few years.
13. Alabama: Avery Johnson did a great job landing Terrence Ferguson, a top 10 recruit in the Class of 2016, but he really could use Ferguson this season.
14. Missouri: The Tigers went 9-23 in Kim Anderson’s first season and then proceeded to lose their two best players to transfer during the offseason. It’s going to be a long year in Columbia.

PHOTOS: De’Aaron Fox helps UK fan meet Coach Cal

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John Calipari is on the road this week, doing his best to try and ensure that Kentucky’s 2016 recruiting class features some of the nation’s best and brightest stars.

Today, he is in North Carolina, reportedly there to visit Harry Giles, the best prospect in the class and a kid many compare to Chris Webber, as well as top ten recruit Bam Adebayo, a powerful post that is reminiscent of former Louisville big man Montrezl Harrell.

Last night he was in Houston, visiting De’Aaron Fox, who may just be the best lead guard in a class overloaded with talented floor generals. Cal’s visit is a story in and of itself, but what happened during the visit is much more interesting that the visit itself.

You see, Fox invited a classmate of his to the visit, a student named Seth Barnett. Barnett is a diehard Kentucky fan, his family relocating to Texas when Seth’s dad got a job there, according to Kentucky Sports Radio:

deaaronfox-visit

Don’t be surprised if there is some backlash here. The twitter account for Fox’s high school basketball team tweeted out the pictures with the hashtag #brandbuilding. Was this a genuine gesture, or was this an attempt to improve his public persona — One orchestrated by the marketing genius that is Coach Cal? — through a moment that will go viral, particularly within Big Blue Nation?

The answer doesn’t really matter to me.

Fox and Calipari gave Seth and his family a moment that they will never forget. They didn’t have to do that, and the motivation behind that act of kindness is likely irrelevant to Barnett’s family.

Me, too.

Report: LSU to host NBA-style combine this fall

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Love him or hate him, it’s impossible to ignore the impact that John Calipari has had on the sport of basketball since his arrival in Kentucky.

The latest example?

The Kentucky-only NBA combine that he held last fall. If you’ve forgotten, for two days in early October — after college basketball practices had started — Calipari opened up his practice to NBA personnel, hosting representatives from every NBA franchise in a combine-style event that was designed to showcase the ability of the players on his loaded roster.

While the value of that experience and access for the scouts in attendance is probably limited (what’s two days of sanitized practices and athletic testing when a 35-plus game sample is right around the corner?) the impact cannot be ignored, because Cal also opened his doors to ESPN U’s cameras.

Is there a better way to market a college basketball program than to get on national television at a time when football is in full swing, the MLB Playoffs are happening and the NBA and NHL are kicking off? Well yeah, there is: Have the commentators discuss how every NBA team is in attendance to evaluate the professional future of the players.

It’s brilliant.

I said as much at the time.

And it was only a matter of time before people began copying him.

LSU will be holding a two-day scouting combine of their own on October 13th and 14th, according to a report from CBSSports.com. That will likely come right on the heels of Kentucky’s combine, which is reportedly scheduled for October 11th and 12th. The Tigers don’t have the same basketball pedigree as the Wildcats, but they do have talents like Ben Simmons, Antonio Blakeney, Craig Victor and Tim Quarterman, all of whom could end up in the NBA one day. It certainly helps that Simmons could very well be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

It goes further than that, too, as two AAU programs in New York — Albany City Rocks and PSA Cardinals — held a combine of their own during this July’s live recruiting period. (To be fair, the opportunity to sell Coach’s Packets for $290 a pop might have played a role in this decision as well.)

Calipari is an excellent basketball coach, but it’s not his X’s-and’O’s acumen that earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame. He didn’t invent the Pack-Line defense like Dick Bennett did. He didn’t influence the way that the Motion Offense was run like Bobby Knight, or find a way to make an entire region play one style — the Swing Offense — like Bo Ryan.

What he did — what he’s done his entire career — is find a way to stay one step ahead of the curve while marketing and recruiting to his program.

That may not be what he wants to be remember for, but his impact on that side of the game is impossible to ignore.