As his Kentucky team prepares to host Auburn Saturday at Rupp Arena, Calipari is focusing less than ever on basketball, but he's jumping through all sorts of hoops in order to get the Wildcats where he wants them.
"I'm not watching game tape with them. None," Calipari said. "The staff is doing that. I don't want them to see me in a basketball sense right now. I'm just teaching life skills. That's all. How to deal with this, how to deal with adversity. What does it mean to love? Tell me what it means to love."
Those were two of nine times Calipari said "love" in an 11-minute meeting with the media Thursday.
Sound unconventional? It is. Calipari said he's "never" tried skipping out on film sessions. And that's not his only first.
He strapped heart monitors to players earlier this season to convince them they could play harder. Calipari said he reads "three books a day" mining for ideas. He's talked to sports psychologists Bob Rotella and Ken Blanchard.
"I'm taking stuff from everything I'm reading," Calipari said. "Praying in the morning. Hard. Just for strength to keep going for these kids, because they deserve to feel the joy of doing something unique."
Whatever Calipari's doing looks like it's starting to work.
The Wildcats (16-6, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) are second in the SEC standings, and though they've been outside the Associated Press Top 25 for 10 straight weeks, they've won four straight and six of their last seven.
"Time is running out," freshman Willie Cauley-Stein said. "We only got nine more league games, and it doesn't seem like we should only have nine more league games. It's really time to step on the gas and start doing what we have to do."
And Calipari is convinced that's about more than X's and O's. Every day, he said, he has three talking points in a pre-practice meeting. Rarely are they basketball related.
Instead, he's focusing on pulling players out of what he calls their "four-foot circle," teaching them the concepts of teamwork and - as he continually stressed on Thursday - love.
"See, if you love - and truly love - that means it's more about the other guy than you," Calipari said. "Then you have discipline. The reason you have discipline is, you're playing for him because you love him and you got his back. It's a hard thing, now."
And it can be particularly hard, Calipari said, for basketball players who grew up in a culture of individualism. Players by nature want to establish who they are before they establish what they do for a team.
"We struggled in the beginning," Cauley-Stein said. "We was trying to establish ourselves, and now we've got to start establishing a team. We're making strides in establishing a team and not individual players."
Calipari is trying to expedite that process, and though sometimes it's about basketball - teaching players to share the ball, or to hustle back and not hang their heads after mistakes - sometimes it's about more.
That's why Calipari said he'll sometimes drive at night from his house to the Wildcat Coal Lodge, where the players live, and "pull out books" and have discussions about those non-basketball life lessons he's trying to teach.
It's taking time. It may take more still. Calipari's Kentucky teams traditionally have been stocked with one-and-done talents - and freshmen Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress are projected as high first-round NBA Draft picks - but some in this group might require more seasoning, he said.
"We don't just have one (year)," Calipari said. "I told them this thing may not be a year. It may be two, it may be three, it may be four. It doesn't matter. It's gonna be what it is."
And it's going to be memorably different for Calipari, perhaps his least conventional season in coaching.
"Like I told my staff, 'Write this stuff down, because if it works, let's make sure we remember what the heck we did,'" Calipari said. "'Cause this is all new for me now."
AUBURN AT KENTUCKY| SATURDAY | 4 P.M. | SEC NETWORK
KENTUCKY (16-6, 7-2 SEC) Coach: John Calipari (118-20 in fourth season at Kentucky; 521-158 in 21st season overall) Last game: Beat South Carolina 77-55 Roster | Stats
Auburn (9-13, 3-6 SEC) Coach: Tony Barbee (35-49 in third season at Auburn; 117-101 in seventh season overall) Last game: Beat Alabama 49-37 Roster | Stats
Game Information Site: Rupp Arena (23,000), Lexington, Ky. TV: SEC Network (Dave Baker play-by play, Kara Lawson analyst); SEC Network affiliates. Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst); Sirius 123/XM 200. Internet:Audio | Video Favorite: Kentucky by 17
Series Information Series record: Kentucky leads 87-17 At Lexington: Kentucky leads 44-2 Coaches' records: Calipari 4-0 vs. Auburn; Barbee 0-3 vs. Kentucky
Last meeting: Kentucky 75, Auburn 53, Jan. 19, Auburn, Ala.
Just days after John Calipari said his team couldn't "whomp" any opponent, the Wildcats put a hurt on the Tigers at Auburn Arena. Kyle Wiltjer scored 17 points and UK, playing without injured freshman Willie Cauley-Stein, outscored Auburn 45-28 in the second half. Nerlens Noel had 10 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks for Kentucky, and the Cats' defense was as tough on the perimeter as in the post. Auburn shot 0-for-15 from three-point range.
Keys to the Game
1. Frankie Speaking: Auburn guard Frankie Sullivan was a non-factor against Kentucky in the season's first meeting, scoring 12 points but shooting 5-for-16. He'll likely have to play better to give the Tigers any shot at an upset in Rupp Arena. In Auburn's win against Alabama this week, Sullivan moved into the top 10 in Auburn's career scoring list. Sullivan has 1,445 points, and he needs 86 more to pass NBA veteran Marquis Daniels for sole possession of ninth place.
2. Shooting Struggles: Auburn's win against Alabama on Wednesday snapped a six-game losing streak, but it hardly was a thing of beauty. The Tigers won 49-37 and shot 34.1 percent from the floor. That continued a recent trend for Auburn, which is shooting 35.3 percent over its past six games. Included in that streak is some ice-cold three-point shooting. Auburn, which started its cold spell with an 0-for-15 three-point shooting performance against Kentucky, is 28-for-113 (24.8 percent) from three-point range in the past six games.
3. Full Strength: Auburn guard Chris Denson has been something of an offensive bright spot of late, averaging 12.3 points per game over his last four. That's part of an up-and-down season for Denson. The junior guard started hot, averaging 15.2 points per game through the Tigers' first five games. Then he missed four straight with a stress fracture in his right foot. He returned for Auburn's Jan. 19 game with Kentucky but went scoreless in 13 minutes, then scored one point in 18 minutes at Vanderbilt. He's been in double figures in three of four games since.