LEXINGTON — Three days before the start of a six-game exhibition tour of the Bahamas and some three months before the start of the regular season, and UK basketball coach John Calipari is already playing the pity card.
This Kentucky team is peppered with experienced McDonald’s All-Americans, along with four of the best incoming recruits in the country, making this group of Wildcats arguably the most heralded in school history, even more than last year’s bunch that toiled beneath 40-0 expectations and finished 29-11.
The buzz around the summer workouts for this Kentucky team has been off the charts, and yet, when Calipari was asked Wednesday how his players are looking in practice, he typically downplayed his team, in part because sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein and freshman big man Trey Lyles are sitting out, recovering from various ailments that should be no problem once regular season practice starts in October.
“They’re doing okay,” Calipari said. “Having Willie (Cauley-Stein) and Trey out makes it hard to say, ‘Let’s work on chemistry,’ and all those things, when two pretty good players aren’t playing.“
Though, Calipari admits: “That gives us a chance to get other guys a really good look, and gets them ready to go. But at the end of the day, those two are going to be a big part of what we do.”
You would think this Bahamas tour would be great for a Kentucky team that has to blend a solid group of newcomers with the nucleus of last year’s NCAA runner-up. But when asked about the value of playing this early, Calipari said: “Let’s talk about the downside. It just makes our season really long.”
Calipari said these games would be no picnic, played largely against national teams, with a slew of older, professional players. There are two games against the Puerto Rico national team (Aug. 10, 12), two against the Dominican Republic national team (Aug. 15, 17) and two against a French professional team, Champagne Chalons-Relm (Aug. 11, 16).
The first three games are on ESPNU and the second three on the SECNetwork.
“We’re playing six games in eight days against professional players, which means we probably shouldn’t win any of the games,” Calipari said. “And I don’t want it to be about winning and losing right now. I want it to be about development. Are we getting better? Are we learning to play off of one another? When adversity hits, how do we deal with it? All those things, we’re trying to learn, and that’s what I want to use the experience for.”
Here’s a look at some other odds and ends from the press conference here Wednesday:
By all accounts, sophomore guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison are slimmer, quicker, and light years more comfortable this time around.
“They’ve lost weight, so they’re more athletic,” Calipari said of the Harrisons. “They are playing faster. They’re able to sustain. The other thing is they already know what we’re trying to do, so there’ s no anxiety. They’re comfortable out on the court, where last year they were trying to figure themselves out, and that’s why you had that body language. You don’t see any of that this year.”
Andrew Harrison said the improvement goes well beyond weight loss.
“I think it’s just us realizing how much work it actually takes for us to be great,” he said. “Getting that confidence you had back in high school, just feeling like you’re the best player. That’s what it really was.
“I’m a lot more comfortable now,” he added. “I feel like I can take on a leadership role, and I’m having fun with the guys asking me questions and stuff. I try to help them as much as I can.”
Andrew has been limited in practice this week by a twisted ankle, but will play in the Bahamas.
All parties involved agree that the Harrisons had better step up because freshmen Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis are outstanding players, and sophomore Dominique Hawkins will seriously push all of the above.
“He controls what’s happening,” Calipari said of Ulis, a 5-foot-9 buzz saw who will back up Andrew Harrison at the point. “The second thing is he has a great feel for who is open, and he delivers the ball to those guys. And he can score a little bit. I don’t see his size as being a factor. I imagine it will be at some point, but I haven’t seen that yet, and he’s playing against huge guards right now.”
Johnson and Towns
Calipari said the practice battles between sophomore center Dakari Johnson and freshman big man Karl-Anthony Towns have been outstanding.
“Dakari has lost weight, and he sees a challenge, and he’s going for it,” Calipari said. “Karl is way better than I thought from what I saw in high school. He’s a very active player that is skilled and runs better than I ever thought he would. It’s great because every time one of them backs up, they get scored on or rebounded on. They’re learning on every possession.”
A platoon system?
Even without Cauley-Stein and Lyles, Calipari said you may see him platoon lineups in the Bahamas.
“There may be a game where I’ll play eight or nine guys, but short of that, we’re going to play five guys in, five out,” Calipari said.
The players say the depth of talent is good enough to do that.
“It is competitive,” says sophomore forward Alex Poythress. “There are so many people out there that are competitive, that there are a lot of battles.”
Calipari said the added talent and experience will make him more comfortable as well.
“The biggest thing is I have guys that understand, so I can do it the way that I used to coach, which is to get to the back and watch what they are doing,” he said. “I talk them through (stuff). Much of the time, they’re talking each other through.
“Dakari is talking. The twins are talking. Alex is talking. Marcus (Lee) is talking. They’re able to talk to each other because they know what to say. People came into our gym last year, and we had eight or nine freshmen, and no one talked because they didn’t know what to say.”