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The Chess Master Strikes Again

By Dr. John Huang

Just when you thought you had him figured out, John Calipari shows you why he gets paid the big bucks. Not only does Kentucky’s head basketball coach teach X’s and O’s, run pick and rolls, and cure shooting woes, he’s also had to reach deep into his psychological bag of tricks this year in order to fully motivate his players.

Exhibit No. 1 was Kentucky’s 73-66 win over Arkansas in Fayetteville earlier today. With 8:19 left in the game, the Wildcats (13-4, 4-1 SEC) and Razorbacks (14-3, 3-2 SEC) were tied at 44. Kentucky had just squandered an 11-point lead when Calipari gets the heave-ho arguing a foul call on EJ Montgomery. After the ejection, Arkansas makes 3 of 4 technical free throws to take a 47-44 lead. Kentucky then explodes on a 17-2 run to essentially win the game.

Was Calipari’s ejection a purposeful manipulation to help motivate his team. I say “yes.” The whole event appeared orchestrated as none of Kentucky’s assistant coaches made any effort to restrain Cal from his confrontation with the refs. The chess master strikes again.

Coach John Calipari making all the right psychological moves

For a college basketball coach, channeling Sigmund Freud isn’t easy. Determining the mental makeup of your team can often drive you to drink. Players come from all types of backgrounds, replete with childhood scars, dysfunctional relationships, and varying work ethics. Trying to determine what makes them tick can be downright frustrating. Miss the mark and you’ve lost your team. Push the right buttons and you’re suddenly vying for a championship.

Coddling Nick Richards

Take Nick Richards for example. Kentucky’s junior center has all the talent in the world. Coming into the program, he had NBA scouts drooling with his prototypical body and athletic skillset. But for two full seasons, Nick’s talent lay dormant, buried beneath a seven-foot cloud of uncertainty and self-doubt. Calipari patiently poked and prodded, giving Nick encouragement every step of the way. Fans labeled the Jamaican-born talent as a terminal head case, figuring Coach Cal was being way too indulgent in coddling a lost cause.

Two years of patience finally paying off with junior Nick Richards

This year Richards has blossomed. Rather than continuing to applaud and encourage, Calipari seems intent on pushing Nick to the limit—demanding more and raising the bar to unreachable heights. In a recent game, Nick pulled down 11 rebounds. “We watched the tape, and he should have gotten 20,” Calipari quipped. The freshman or sophomore Nick Richards would have readily caved under the scrutiny. But the junior Nick Richards seems up to the task.

Imploring Ashton Hagans

Always needing more from Ashton Hagans

The same goes for Ashton Hagans. Rather than gushing over a near triple-double performance, Calipari hungers for more from his sophomore point guard. One would think it would be frustrating. Just when you’re craving due praise, your coach pooh-poohs your award-winning performance.

“I wasn’t happy with Ashton,” Calipari said. “He’s still undisciplined both offensively and defensively. He makes four or five plays a half that hurt our team, and only because of discipline.”

Go figure. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded. From everyone who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

Encouraging Khalil Whitney

On the flip side, let’s look at someone like Khalil Whitney. The McDonald’s All-American, ranked the 11th best prospect in the class of 2019, has had a tough go of it in his freshman season. His shots haven’t fallen, and he can’t seem to grab a rebound to save his life. Yet, his coach continues to laud his play at every turn.

Khalil Whitney is way too talented to give up on

“I was so happy for Khalil today,” Calipari gushed after Whitney’s recent zero point (0-3), one rebound clunker of a performance. “Now you may have looked and said, well, he missed shots. They were all the shots we want him to take.”

The same goes for fellow freshman Keion Brooks or sophomore forward EJ Montgomery. Both guys have a world of talent, but neither have yet to set the world on fire. And yet, according to Coach Cal, both players deserve induction in the hall of fame.

“EJ was good today…Keion I thought did some good stuff,” Calipari continued, heaping on the praise. “I’m looking at the three guys I feel are better than they are playing, and I’m saying, if they get it right, and now we have a full complement…”

Coaching Psychobabble?

Is that wishful thinking? Perhaps a bit—but I’m willing to bet it’s more along the lines of coaching psychobabble.

On one hand, keep your players who are doing well hungry but humble. Continue to raise that performance bar to ward off complacency. On the other hand, keep encouraging the players who are struggling. Don’t kick ‘em when they’re down. Inspire confidence and good play by speaking it into existence.

In the meantime, find the perfect moment to get yourself tossed out of a game your team desperately needs to win.

That’s vintage John Calipari. Let’s just hope he keeps pushing the right psychological buttons.

Dr. John Huang
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and military veteran. As a lifelong Wildcat fan, a fledgling author, and an occasional guest host of Just the Cats Radio, he's now living out his dream as a UK Sports columnist. Dr. Huang also covers professional sports on a regional level. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs or contact him @KYHuangs@gmail.com. If you enjoy his writing, you can also read more at www.huangswhinings.com.
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