National Columnist

Calipari's mind games have Kentucky on cusp of another title

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- This is not a secret, except to the people who want to dismiss John Calipari as a recruiter, an accumulator of talent, nothing more. How does he win so much? His players are better than your players. That's how he wins so much. That's the silliness you'll hear from those who want to dismiss this 597-game winner as a guy who sends five great players onto the floor, rolls out a ball and watches what happens.

But the truth, and the secret, is that John Calipari has a gift for motivation that borders on hypnosis. The way he motivates his players, the way he unlocks their potential and has them ready, is as freakish in its own part as the way 6-foot-9, 250-pound Julius Randle spins into the lane like a tiny point guard, and the way Marcus Lee can jump over every other enormous, great athlete on the court for put-back dunks.

Speaking of Marcus Lee ...

Entering the Sweet 16, the guy hadn't played meaningful minutes in three months. In the 2014 calendar year, spanning 23 games since Jan. 8, Marcus Lee had scored nine points. Total. In Kentucky's first NCAA Tournament game, he didn't play against Kansas State. In the next one, he didn't play against Wichita State. In the next one? He played one minute against Louisville. Long enough to commit a foul.

In the next game, in the Elite Eight against Michigan, Marcus Lee came off the bench in the first half and scored six points in two minutes. He scored again later in the first half. Then again in the second. By game's end, this player with nine points, six rebounds and two blocked shots, total, in the previous 23 games had scored 10 points with eight rebounds and two blocks in 15 minutes of Kentucky's biggest game to that point.

How did that happen?

Calipari hypnotized him.

In the 48 hours between the Louisville game in the Sweet 16 and the Michigan game in the Elite Eight, when it became apparent Willie Cauley-Stein wouldn't play because of an ankle injury, Calipari had gotten inside Marcus Lee's head.

"We talked about it for two days what was going to happen," Calipari said the next day. "We made the game really simple for [Marcus]: 'You're only going to do these three things. ... Don't give them the ball in these positions, just give it here. ... Go do, and do what you do. ... The world will be talking about you after the game.' "

Calipari paused.

"He was trending worldwide."

That was Monday, the day after the Michigan game. But on Sunday, in the minutes after that 75-72 Kentucky victory, this exchange happened between Calipari and Lee on the podium, with the media watching:

Lee: Coach just told me to always be ready. ... So I just tried to stay ready, no matter what the time was and contribute to the team.

Calipari: Tell them what I told you for two days before this game.

Lee: ... He told the team I was going to have a big day.

Calipari: And everyone in the world would be talking about you, is what I said.

Lee: Right.

Calipari: Proud of you, kid.

Last week, Calipari figured he'd need Marcus Lee. This week he figured he'd need Alex Poythress, the most confounding player on the roster. Poythress might be the smartest player on the team, a 4.0 student, and also one of the most physically gifted. But for whatever reason Poythress' motor doesn't always run hot, and his confidence wavers. Calipari has spent the past two seasons trying to unlock Poythress' potential, without consistent success, but this is what Calipari said 24 hours before the Final Four game with Wisconsin, surrounded by five starters, some of whom he knew would take the following message back to the Poythress in the locker room:

"I'm telling you," Calipari said, "[Alex] is a terrific player -- and if we're to do something special this weekend, you all will be talking about him."

That was Friday. On Saturday afternoon, Calipari texted Poythress and told him directly what he'd said about him the day before:

"I texted him before [the game] because I had a bunch of my friends say he's going to have a big game," Calipari said, possibly lying, possibly telling the truth, neither of which matters. "I texted him, 'This is what they're saying, man. I love you.' "

That was Saturday afternoon. Saturday night? Poythress had eight points and seven rebounds, his best production in two months, with four of those points coming in the final 4 minutes, 44 seconds. One was an absurd dunk in traffic, the kind of play Calipari says Poythress is always doing in private, bringing practice to a halt as teammates say, "Do that in a game!"

Poythress did it in a game on Saturday. In the Final Four. And the Wildcats needed every bit of his eight points and seven rebounds in a 74-73 victory.

So that was Saturday night. And this was early Sunday morning, after the game, when Calipari and several of his players were speaking to the media at the podium. Someone asked Calipari a question about Poythress, about how Calipari had "planted a seed" in Poythress' mind and seen it flower into a game-changing performance against Wisconsin. Calipari smiled and directed the question toward another player, and toward the next game. The Wisconsin game was over. There was one more to play, on Monday night against Connecticut for the national title, and Calipari wanted to win that one.

So he turned his mindfreak onto James Young, sitting a few feet away.

"They know I believe in them," is how Calipari started his answer to a question about Alex Poythress. ... "Aaron [Harrison] knows. You said [a few moments ago] you're normally not the star, but if you watched us, we got a bunch of stars on this team. ... James Young has had 25-point games, which I'll make a prediction he'll have in this Monday night game.

"You listening to me? ... I'm putting a positive seed in your mind right now."

James Young was listening, and James Young was smiling. The mentalist had spoken. And the player? The player believes.

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