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By LARRY VAUGHT
If Kentucky coach John Calipari is right, last year’s NIT season was “the beginnings of success” for the upcoming season for the Wildcats.
“What we’re about to undertake has never been done before. Trying to put teams together like this, where you’re talking a big number of players, whether it be the Lakers, the Miami Heat, it takes time,” said Calipari during his summer press conference Wednesday. “There’s a learning curve. There’s a galvanizing process that we have to go through. And you know what, we’re going to have to be patient.
“When you looked at our numbers from last year, our defensive numbers, our shot-blocking numbers, our offensive percentages, you would say we should have won more games. But we weren’t as skilled as we needed to be, especially at crunch time. We weren’t as skilled. We weren’t as physically dominating as my teams in the past. This team should be.
Calipari said his coaching staff will have a two-day retreat next week to figure out what each incoming and returning player needs.
“We had Michael Gilchrist. Michael needed something from us that was different than what Anthony Davis needed from us. Than what Marquis Teague needed us in a different way. Terrence Jones needed something different than Doron Lamb needed. Or Darius Miller – ‘be more aggressive!’ Every one of those kids needed us in different ways.”
Calipari has eight freshmen, including six McDonald’s All-Americans, coming on board to go with his returning players. He calls it a “talented crew” that will still need to be coached.
“Each individual player needs coached. They need direction. They need to be taught the level of commitment. The intensity. The will to win has to come out. The alpha males that we didn’t have a year ago, I think we have, those guys have to do that. They can lead, but they have to lead us in the way they need to be led,” the UK coach said. “Michael Gilchrist, how did he lead us? Breakfast club. What did he do in practice? Was unbelievable in his work ethic. What did that mean. Two years ago, we did not have one bad practice. Not one. Last year, we had about five good practices. That I would say in my mind, over the years, would be the kind of practices I felt comfortable with.”
Calipari offered his analysis of each returning player as well as the newcomers:
Sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein.
Calipari: “Willie Cauley has a chance to be one of the better players that I’ve ever coached. Is not delusional at all. Understood how far he had come. Understood how far he needed to go. Understood he could have been a first-round draft pick. He knew. But he came back anyway. Because he wasn’t delusional.”
Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer.
Calipari: “Body’s got to change. Sixth man of the year has to get better. Physically. We all know what his skill set is. He has to take his defense and all those areas of his game to another level, which I think he will. My hope is he makes the national team, the Canadian national team, and then takes his game to another level.”
Sophomore Alex Poythress.
Calipari: “Alex Poythress learned a lot about himself and where he’s going to have to take everything to be the player that he wants to be. Now, let me say that, with that being said, he would have been in the first round had he put his name in the draft. He knew he wasn’t ready. And again, he was being pushed by some corners to put his name in the draft, but he knew. Again, wasn’t delusional. He knew, I have to change. I have to take this to another level. If he does, and the competition brings out the best in him, it is scary how good he can be. He’s not close to where he needs to be.
Seniors Jon Hood, Jarrod Polson.
Calipari: “Jon Hood, by the end of the year, for the first time had a breakthrough. And I was excited for him. He was one of those guys who played, he had fun playing, he didn’t feel the weight of the world on him, he didn’t have anything to prove. He went out to play. And Jarrod Polson ended up being one of our better guards at the end of the year.”
Freshman Aaron Harrison.
Calipari: “Big guard, can score the ball, should be and will be and is expected to be and will be demanded to be a lock-down defender. With his size, with his athleticism, one we can play a big zone. Two, we should be able to press because we’re going to be so big with our guard play and whoever we put up there. But it will start with Aaron. We know what he can do scoring the ball, but we want him to other to do other things and again, help define his game.”
Freshman Andrew Harrison.
Calipari: “My hope is by the end of the year, he’s just like some of the other point guards we’ve had. You look at him and say, hey he can do things that other point guards can’t do at his size, his scoring ability. And both of them are terrific drivers, which kind of tells you that we’re going to go back to a lot more dribble-drive. I’ve talked to a couple of my friends. We’re talking about dribble-drive into pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll, into dribble-drive, because of the team.”
Freshman Dominique Hawkins.
Calipari: “A young man from in state that just kind of blew me away with his will to win, his temperament on the court, his demeanor in helping his team win a championship. You always want to coach guys who understand. By winning a state championship and being down 16 two games, it shows what a tough mentality. And with what I just went through, I wanted a tough point guard. I wanted one more tough, physical – how ‘bout this – not just fighting, physical tough, how bout mentally tough? How about not break down? How about, ‘I’m bringing it and I’m not afraid to be 16 down and it has no effect on me?’ That’s what I saw in Dominique and why we recruited him.’
Freshman Dakari Johnson.
Calipari: “I watched him two summers ago folks, and I’m going to tell you, he had a knee issue and I looked at him and said, ‘I’m not so sure.’ Then I watched him a little bit later, and I said ‘Wait a minute.’ Then I watched him later in the season, could not believe it. The line of improvement for Dakari is like that. He’s a kid that will get up at six in the morning and work out. He’s a great student. He does all the things, and he wants to be better. He was on a team that there were times he wasn’t getting the ball. Never said one thing, ran that court, posted up. When he did get it, he did good things. He’s got great skills and his seven-foot tall.”
Freshman Marcus Lee.
Calipari: “Averaged a triple-double for the season. Like 11 blocks, like 15 rebounds and 18 points. Pogo stick, active, high energy, 6-10, 6-11, long armed. Another player who, again, wanted to be here. These kids all wanted to be here. They wanted the challenge of this, and they wanted to do it together. So when you look at Marcus Lee, you say he could have gone somewhere … He didn’t want to go. He wanted to come here and take on this challenge.”
Freshman Julius Randle.
Calipari: “Truly a hard worker who can play multiple positions, who can play inside and out. He’s a beast. He’s an alpha beast who will drive the team. Has a little bit of Micheal (Kidd-Gilchrist) in him, in a different way. In my mind, there are good players out there, he’s as good as any of them.”
Freshman Derek Willis.
Calipari: “Derek Willis, 6-9, 6-10, long, skilled big man from the state. Again, where his game goes … He wanted the challenge of this. ‘I want to go every day against players this good to see how I can be.’ Isn’t that the greatest part of this? I mean it’s not, ‘Well, I want to go here so I can be the guy and the only man. I want to go here and be challenged. How good can I be? And the only way I’m going to find it out is to go against the best. I’m going to go against the best every day.’ Well, he’s got a chance of really being good and being special.”
Freshman James Young.
Calipari: “Gives you that 6-7 wing who flat can shoot the ball.”