LEXINGTON – Odds & ends from men’s basketball media day Tuesday with the Kentucky Wildcats:
UK coach John Calipari said he gave his players a couple days off recently, and on the afternoon of the second day, he got a text from 6-foot-9 freshman forward Marcus Lee.
“He texted me about noon, and he said, ‘Coach, I cannot wait to practice. How do YOU feel?’” Calipari said. “I mean, that’s who he is.”
“I just try to keep our team together, even if we’re away or not with each other all the time,” Lee said when asked about his glass-is-half-full attitude. “I’ll send tweets or text messages to all the players and all the coaches just to make sure we’re not forgetting who we are, and we’re always together. They all get excited when I text them randomly, and it kind of makes their day and gets them ready to practice.”
Freshman point guard Andrew Harrison shares Lee’s enthusiasm about practice.
“The biggest difference from high school is that the practices are much more competitive,” Andrew said. “Everyone is on your level, so you have to be a leader, step up and be challenged every day.
“Our practices are very intense. Everyone wants to win every drill and every sprint. What is crazy about it is you have to actually be mentally prepared for practice every day because it’s pretty much a war. I’m excited for practice every day because I know we are going to get into it, and it’s going to be like a real game. Sometimes you don’t feel like practicing, but once you get in there and see the competitiveness, you can’t do anything but bring it up a level.”
Calipari indicated that his most-hyped freshman, 6-foot-9, 250-pound Julius Randle (high school stats: 32 points and 22 rebounds per game, for gosh sakes), may be the hardest worker of all his players.
“I came in to my office last night about 11, 10:30, and he’s in there shooting,” Calipari said of Randle. “This morning, I hear blup, blup, blup, and I look out my window and he’s got a full sweat going, and he’s going to practice today.
“The only kid that worked like that that I’ve had has been Brandon Knight, who willed himself into the league (NBA), willed himself to be a top five, six, seven pick because, physically, you look at him, and there’s no way. But he willed himself.”
Calipari grew a tad defensive Tuesday when a reporter suggested that he has talked about 40-0 as a target for this Kentucky team.
“What I’ve said — let me, again, tell you what I’ve said for about eight years — I’ve said, before I retire, I would love to coach a team that goes 40-0,” Calipari said. “Now, as a Democrat you can say what I’ve said. As a Republican, you can say what I’ve said.
“Will it happen? I don’t know. Every game we play, we play to win. The reason I like the mentality of every game matters is you don’t want to get upset by people you shouldn’t get upset by.”
Calipari insists his team does not talk about an undefeated season.
“I’ve had three teams that almost did it, and by not doing it, we won the most games in the history of the NCAA,” he said. “So you may not go 40-0, but you’re doing special things.”
The Kentucky players have no doubt been instructed not to talk about 40-0 with the media, and for the most part, they dutifully complied at media day.
Only Aaron Harrison, Andrew’s twin brother, came close to cracking.
“We don’t talk about it,” Aaron said initially. But then he added: “Of course it’d be great to win very game, and that’s what we want to do. We think we can, but anything can happen in basketball.”
Aaron then drifted back to coach speak 101.
“We just want to get better,” he said.
Calipari was asked for his impressions 10 practices into the long season.
“No revelations, but Marcus Lee is better than I thought,” Calipari said. “Derek Willis is better than I thought. I just got done watching our practice tape from yesterday, and Jarrod Polson and Dominique (Hawkins) played well.
“Everybody that walks in the building, the guy that they’re saying is the standout is James Young ... like, every other day. We’ve had NBA scouts in here every day. They’re all speaking about him.
“He is really fast,” Calipari added, referring to Young, a 6-6 swing player from Rochester Hills, Mich. “He’s now not settling for jump shots, so you’re seeing a young man get his head and shoulders by people, take contact and make baskets.”
But Calipari indicated he knows very little about what the finished product of this team will look like.
“There’s a process that we teach with, and you guys who have watched me know I don’t need a team in October playing like it’s January. We have not played any defense, none. Yesterday was the first rebounding we’ve done. We’ve done no pick and roll.
“But what I like is the instincts of the players. Their instincts are normally right. They’re not thinking. They’re instinctive, and that makes it kind of fun, especially as fast and as aggressive as we play.”
Calipari said he always teaches offense before defense in pre-season practice.
“There’s all kinds of ways of doing this job,” he said. “You can help them offensively and build their confidence, and then go to your defense when you’ve got confident players. Or you start right with the defense, and we’re going to make that our staple, and then it kind of squelches the offense because the defense gets ahead of the offense and the offense can’t even make plays.”
Calipari has his own way of telling twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison apart.
“Those two guys are 6-5, 220, and they’re bulldogs,” Calipari said. “Right now you’ll notice I’m making Andrew keep his hair longer than Aaron’s so I know who’s who. But when the season goes, then we’ll have them so the other team doesn’t know who’s who.
“I told Andrew he’s got to keep one line somewhere on his head that I can see, and then I’ll know it’s him and not Aaron.”
State Farm Classic
Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke and Kansas will once again square off in the State Farm Champions Classic early this season, this time on Nov. 12 in Chicago, with UK vs. Michigan State at 7:30 followed by Duke and KU. But this is the last year for the State Farm event.
Don’t worry, Calipari said, Kentucky’s participation in a similar event will be announced soon.
“We’ll probably announce here in the next two weeks to a month another, what I would call a ridiculous event that we will be a part of,” Calipari said.
Tickets for Kentucky’s first four games went on sale Tuesday night. The Wildcats host exhibition games with Transylvania on Nov. 1 and Montevallo Nov. 4, and then open the regular season with UNC-Ashville Nov. 8 and Northern Kentucky Nov. 10. Lower level seats are $50 and upper level $42. Call 1-800-928-2287.
Tickets for the Blue-White scrimmage Oct. 29 are also available, for $10 lower arena and $5 for upper level.
To see a photo gallery from Media Day, click here.