We’re Talking About Practice!—By John Huang
Whenever the #1-ranked defensive team meets the #2-ranked offensive team on the basketball court, something ultimately has to give. On Saturday in Rupp Arena, it was the Carolina defense that gave just enough as the Wildcats outlasted the outmanned Gamecocks 85-69, thereby taking sole possession of first place in the SEC. With De’Aaron Fox sitting out most of the game with an ankle injury and Mychal Mulder unavailable due to illness, the rest of the team played well enough to propel the Cats to a joint team victory. Malik Monk finished the game with 27 points, while Derek Willis pitched in with 12 points, 7 rebounds, and a jaw-dropping dunk. The Cats (17-2 overall, 7-0 in conference) played hard, but somewhat erratically throughout. This team still needs a lot of work, most of which will take place on the practice court in the upcoming days and weeks.
It was Allen Iverson who famously ranted, “We’re talking about practice man, we’re not even talking about the game…the actual game, when it matters…we’re talking about practice…” With all due respect to the former NBA all-star guard, Coaches John Calipari and Matthew Mitchell would beg to differ. When coaching their UK teams, practice not only matters, but frequently provides the key for how the players perform in upcoming games. More times than not, good individual practices lead to solid team performances.
In his best-selling book, Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice in a given field to allow a person to become truly expert in what he does. On the surface, 10,000 hours seems like a lot of time—but let’s break it down for someone like De’Aaron Fox. It’s not illogical to assume that the 18-year old freshman guard has been seriously playing basketball for the past 12 years. Ten thousand hours on the court works out to about 833 hours of basketball per year, or just under two-and-a-half hours per day. That’s certainly a reasonable amount of time to be playing basketball for someone as good as De’Aaron. One would think that he should be approaching expert status by now.
Maybe the last few practices have actually pushed him over the threshold. When asked directly about De’Aaron’s recent improvement, Cal answered, “It’s practice. All of these players—what we’re trying to do is help them develop habits that will help them to become successful…Your preparation should be so much harder than the game and that means the way you practice, the way you prepared, how focused you are…They’re building their own confidence, their own self-esteem, their own self-worth. They build that themselves through work.” That hard work is certainly paying dividends in terms of Fox’s shooting accuracy. “He’s really spending time in the gym right now,” Calipari added. “He’s really mastering his craft.”
Women’s Basketball Coach Matthew Mitchell agrees. “Confidence comes from practices,” he said after UK’s big 71-54 road win at Alabama. I’m trying to tell the team now that we’re going to win these games on Tuesday and Wednesday or Friday and Saturday…That’s when you’re going to win those games. And that’s what I thought we did really well. We had enthusiasm, we had some fire and tenacity at practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, and I just can’t overstate that.”
If that weren’t encouraging enough, UK Men’s team practices will be further ramped up with the addition of five-star recruit Hamidou Diallo. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Queens, N.Y. joined the Wildcats last week and promises to provide increased competition on the practice floor and during team scrimmages. Calipari said in a statement “As far as what Hamidou can do, he’s a 6-5, 6-6 wing who is an unbelievable defender, athletic, has great ball skills and is a terrific finisher. He’s going to challenge Malik (Monk), De’Aaron (Fox), Isaiah (Briscoe), Mychal (Mulder) and Dominique (Hawkins) every day, which is great for our team, as well as what they’ll challenge him to do.”
Practice does indeed make perfect. Remember the 2012 National Championship team? Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and company established the Breakfast Club, known for their dedication to practice through early morning workouts. Tyler Ulis resurrected a version of the club last year. When I asked Assistant Coach Joel Justice in December whether there was any evidence of a “breakfast club” with this current group of players, he replied, “I know guys are working, but I don’t know if we’ve gotten to that point yet to where there’s anything that’s established. As a group of guys, this group is working. They love to be in the gym and they love to be around each other. They drag each other, whether it is to the weight room, to watch some film, or to get up some extra shots, this group is working hard and it’s contagious. They love to be in the gym and have a tremendous thirst for that.”
Coach Cal recently estimated that this team may still be a month away from turning into a bona fide national championship contender. “We may be two months away,” he said, changing his tune after another lukewarm performance. Two months means another 150 practice hours in the gym. Plenty of time to become experts in your craft—just in time for March Madness!
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.
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