LEXINGTON – Starting over from scratch isn’t new for John Calipari. The University of Kentucky head basketball coach said at Thursday’s media day he has no choice but to accept the task of rebuilding yet again.
“If I had my choice between experience and talent, I’m going to take talent,” Calipari said to the media in Memorial Coliseum. “This is a talented group. I don’t know how talented until we start playing, but we’ve got size, we’ve got length, we’ve got slashers, we’ve got a couple shooters. We were worried about our toughness a year ago and I’ve got to tell you, I’m a little worried about the toughness of this team... more worried.”
The Wildcats introduce five new faces, including four freshmen and a graduate student.
It’s a group that multiple times Calipari said – as if he were still trying to convince himself – that he likes them, he really does. He likes their size and skill sets, and more importantly, he likes who they’ll be in March.
“I’m trying not to get too much anxiety of how we’re going to play until we get on the court,” Calipari said. “We’ll do some things and whatever works, we’ll run with it.
“I have a vision of what they’ll look like in March and that’s what I try to drive them to. I’m going to try to be as patient as I can be.”
TOTALLY DIFFERENT TEAM THIS SEASON
Perhaps you haven’t had time yet to glance over the 2012-13 Wildcat roster. Don’t confuse these stars with those of the past. Calipari assured the media that his current team is totally different from last year’s defending NCAA basketball national champions. And it all starts with the different individuals.
First things first, sorry but freshman Alex Poythress is not Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Although the work ethic of the 6-7 239-pound forward on and off the court reminded Calipari of Brandon Knight.
“(Alex) is a great kid,” Calipari said. “Alex is the most conscientious kid I’ve had since Brandon, who is where he is supposed to be on time, work with school done, all that stuff and helping his teammates if they’re lagging behind... Alex is not Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.”
Next on Calipari’s laundry list comes freshman Archie Goodwin, who the coach says is totally different than the guards before him, Doron Lamb or Darius Miller. Calipari also warns that sophomore Ryan Harrow, who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations, is totally different than Marquis Teague. The 6-2 guard transferred from N.C. State.
And returning sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer is also a little different, Calipari says.
“Kyle Wiltjer is just like Kyle Wiltjer, but he got stronger. Legs are stronger, quicker.”
Then there’s freshman forward Nerlens Noel, whose chair drew in a sea of recorders and cameras at media day. He is not Anthony Davis.
“As the year goes on, he’ll do his thing,” Calipari said of the 6-10 228-pound freshman. “But when you see him, you’re going to compare him to Anthony in March and that’s not fair.”
Other newcomers include freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who chose UK over Alabama, Florida and Kansas State, and graduate student Julius Mays, who was named Horizon League Newcomer of the Year at Wright State in 2011.
“Comparing this team to that team in March is not fair. They’re not going to be. We’re going to turn it over, we’re going to get pushed around defensively, we’re going to have breakdowns, offensively we’re going to look like, ‘What in the world are they doing?’ It is going to be the process we’re going through.”
But Coach Cal, how does that make you hopeful for March? It’s in their chemistry. The coach and players agree this team is already closer than last year’s.
“I didn’t think a team could be as close as last year’s team was,” sophomore Wiltjer said, “and we’re already just as close if not closer, which is a big surprise to me, because of how much fun I had last year with the guys. I miss those guys, but this is a great group of guys as well. Off the court, they all mean business. When you get in the gym, they all work hard.”
Calipari immediately shot down the idea that a coach or team needs four years to connect with each other.
“My wife and I, we’ve been together 26 years,” Calipari said. “We were at four months together and I knew. I don’t need four years with these guys. I need a year or two. After that, they start disliking you. We treat them right. It is about them.”
FIRST WEEK OF PRACTICE
Normally at this time of the season, Calipari has already planned ahead for four practices. But so far this year, he’s only looked ahead as far as two and noted those plans are in pencil. He said he wants to see what comes out of the first weeks.
The Wildcats will get their first practice opportunity at Big Blue Madness at Rupp Arena tonight.
“I told my staff, we’ve got to start this season like they absolutely know nothing,” Calipari said of the first week of practice being about reviewing the basics. “Let’s not take anything for granted. That’s what we’ll do.”
The coach said the Wildcats will do more scrimmaging this year than they did last year and start it earlier. He also said they’ll “zero in on rebounding.”
UK opens its schedule with two exhibition games against Northwood and Transylvania on Nov. 1 and 5 and begins the regular season at Maryland on Nov. 9, followed by a game at Duke four days later.
“We’ll wait to do what these guys show us,” Calipari said. “There’s all this stuff you can try, it is just what will work. It is hard because you’re going to be experimenting with Maryland and Duke and you could go down twice. Take two L’s and still be good.”
ESPN is premiering a new series this month called All-Access Kentucky, which follows Calipari and the Wildcats as they seek to defend their NCAA tournament championship. The multi-part series will consist of 30-minute weekly shows airing on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. with the first three episodes scheduled for Oct. 17, 24 and 31.
Calipari said he declined the invitation to do the show for a month before reconsidering.
“I’m not hiding anything,” he said. “I’m not embarrassed about how we do our jobs. I’m not embarrassed of our kids. I’m not embarrassed of how we coach.”
He agreed to let ESPN “come in for a while and see how it plays out.”
“I did not want this to be about me,” Calipari said. “This is about this program, the kids and the staff. They’re good kids who are trying to chase their dreams under a magnifying glass.”
NOTES: UK volleyball coach Craig Skinner addressed the media first on Thursday. For the first time ever, the volleyball team will play in Rupp Arena in an attempt to break the national attendance record at Big Blue Madness tonight at 5 p.m.
Big Blue Madness is the first open practice opportunity for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
The current national attendance record at a volleyball match is 17,430, which occurred Dec. 18, 2008 during the NCAA semifinals at Century Link Center in Omaha, Neb. Rupp Arena seats 23,000.