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By LARRY VAUGHT
John Calipari had a long list of potential problems facing his Kentucky Wildcats early in the season — difficult opening games with Maryland and Duke, lack of experienced players, huge expectations coming off a national championship season.
Yet it wasn’t hard for him to explain Thursday during UK’s Media Day what he likes about his freshman-dominated team.
“I like what they’ll look like in March in my mind. Right now, that’s the only thing I can live with,” said Calipari. “I have a vision of what they’re going to be in March, and that’s what I try to drive them to. I know it’s there and we’re right here.
“I’m going to try to be as patient — I’m not the most patient guy, but I’m going to try to be as patient as I can to drag them along. We were patient last year with (point guard) Marquis Teague, and it paid off, didn’t it? We had people say you can’t play him at point guard. Let somebody else play the point guard, and we let it go. We just said we’re sticking to this, and we’re going to be patient with him. We were, and by the end of the year he was the best point guard in my opinion.”
Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer is the only returning Wildcat with any real game experience. Senior transfer Julius Mays has played three years at North Carolina State and Wright State, though, and understands why Calipari is warning his team that an 0-2 start is possible despite UK being ranked in the top five of preseason polls after losing its top seven players from last year.
“We are a young team. We might not start the season playing as well as you want, but I think he is trying to humble us,” Mays said of Calipari. “I think it is trying to keep our minds off what last year’s team did and just know that nothing is going to be handed to us coming into the season.
“Since the team did win last year, we are going to be everybody’s national championship game and we are going to get everybody’s best game.”
Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein knows this team that will also feature freshmen Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein, will be compared to the national championship team that had star freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.
“It puts a target on your back. They were beating everyone so badly last year and we have a target on our back to see if we are going to be as good as them or if we are going to fall,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s the biggest challenge we have. We can’t compare ourselves to them. We just need to keep going out there and playing and doing whatever coach Cal tells us to do and being effective about it.”
Calipari hinted that veterans like Wiltjer, Ryan Harrow and Jon Hood might tell the UK freshmen that they soon will be hearing a lot more that they will be expected to do.
“The guys that came back will tell the young guys you have not seen him yet. He’s all friendly and happy go lucky. Wait till we start practicing and it gets close to a game and the pressure is on,” Calipari said. “You’re going to see a different animal. They’ve already told those guys. Right now, yeah, he’s all happy and hugging you. Wait until we start playing. You’re going to see this other guy that you don’t recognize right now. That’s what they tell them.
“Whenever whatever I ask our guys to do, they’ll do it. I just have to make sure whatever I ask them is the right thing. You talk about playing zone. If I choose to do that, I just hope it’s the right thing, or what kind of zone. We’re going to change some different offenses. Well, let’s hope it’s right. Because whatever I tell them to do, they’ll do. We’ve got a great group that understood coming here, hard deal. Tell us what you want us to do, and we’re going to do it.”
Calipari admitted he is “trying to figure out” what to do once full practice starts Saturday after Friday night’s Big Blue Madness.
“Because until I get on the court I’m not — we’ll do some things, and whatever works, we run with,” Calipari said.
But the UK coach wasn’t complaining about once again having a basically new roster, something he’s experienced every season at UK.
“If I had my choice between experience and talent, I’m going to take talent. This is a talented group. I don’t know how talented until we start playing, but we’ve got good size. We’ve got length. We’ve got some slashers, got a couple shooters,” Calipari said. “We were worried about our toughness a year ago, and I would tell you, I’m a little worried about the toughness of this team based on the fact that you have a couple of guys, but you just don’t have a — we were worried about it last year. I’m probably more worried this year.”