LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- Right now, the University of Kentucky basketball team still exists only in John Calipari's mind. In the laboratory of practice. There's a blue team, and a white team. The composition changes, but everything is about competition.
At the Wildcats' media day Tuesday, in fact, one of the major points of discussion was whether freshman Derek Willis actually dunked on classmates Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson.
Calipari says he did.
"He dunked on both of them," Calipari said. "We just stopped practice like, oh my gosh."
There seems to be a difference of opinion, however. Randle urged reporters to request the practice tape.
"That did not happen," Randle said. "Go look at the tape. He didn't even dunk the ball. He caught the ball baseline, I went out, he drove past me and Dakari came over to contest it and he went up, and I blocked the ball off the backboard but it went in. So if that's getting dunked on, I'll put on the helmet."
The "helmet" goes to the player in UK practice who got dunked on the most spectacularly. Johnson concurred with Randle's assessment of the play. Twenty feet away, Alex Poythress was telling a different story, and Randle, who in addition to being perhaps the top big man in the college game apparently is blessed with super hearing, stopped several times to look over at his teammate and dispute his version.
"He did not dunk on anybody," Johnson said. "If anybody, he dunked on Julius. It was not me."
Others on the team, like Marcus Lee, didn't want to take a side.
"I'm not going to comment on that," Lee said. "They've been going at that for a while. I'd rather not talk about that. Cal will never let that go."
Just when you think you've got a pretty good handle on the story, you talk to Andrew Harrison. Did Willis really dunk on those guys?
"Yes. Yes he did," Harrison said. "I call it the best highlight of practice so far. I'm sure Dakari and Julius would beg to differ. It was definitely a dunk."
"I wasn't actually in the gym at the time, so I can't put my two cents' on it," he said.
All right, so there's no consensus on that. What there is consensus on is that this is a very talented basketball team, and a very deep basketball team.
But for all the athleticism and competition in practice, it's interesting that none of the Wildcats, not one I talked to on Tuesday, has thought about how it's going to be when everybody occupies the same bench.
"That's going to be pretty fun," Randle said. "That's actually the first time I've ever thought about that. I don't even know how that's gonna look, but I guess I'll see when we play."
Cauley-Stein, who has returned to practice after an injury, said that everyone is so focused on the practices that games aren't exactly a focal point yet.
"That's what people forget, in a practice," he said. "But I've noticed just being in there one day, just finally being able to practice, is that guys forget, we're all on the same team. Once you experience that first game when you're together and something really hype happens and you're together, all of a sudden it's like this isn't a white team and a blue team and everybody's trying to beat each other, but this is Kentucky."
Calipari said that he's not very far along on offense and that he has not had them work on defense at all. There's more dribble-drive, to get players used to guarding ball handlers, but beyond that, he's had them working on beating their own man on offense, and making the right passes and cuts.
"What I like is that the instincts of the players . . . are normally right," he said. "They're not thinking. They're instinctive, and that makes it kind of fun, especially as fast and as aggressive as we play."
Marcus Lee said that if the practices are this competitive this soon, he can't imagine many games rivaling them.
"Honestly, I totally forgot we play other teams," he said. "We play each other all the time, and we're trying to beat each other and make each other better. If this was an actual game during one of our practices, it'd be like the best game in the world."
Calipari isn't talking about how his team will look as a group. He has versatility this season that he didn't have a year ago. He has so many big men that the best one of them all -- perhaps -- he's asking to play away from the basket, because that's what he'll need to do at the next level.
"There's always a 7-footer on the court," Calipari said. "And there's always another 6-10 guy out there."
It's still pretty hard to get your mind around. Pretty soon, it won't be. Calipari is still talking about rebounding and defending. But you have to like the makeup of this team. Not only are the Wildcats tall and talented, but likable and loose.
Cauley-Stein spent two minutes yesterday assessing his and the program's readiness for a zombie apocalypse.
"If the zombie apocalypse happens, I'm surviving," he said. "I don't know about anybody else, but I'm surviving. After three seasons of watching 'The Walking Dead,' and the fourth one just came on, look I've got some plans. I've been writing. If it happens, I'm good. It's mental. I don't need a kit, I just need some weapons, and I'm good."
Asked if Wildcat Coal Lodge is properly fortified, he thought for a moment and said, "No. There's only a couple of ways out, and there's too much glass."
So the Wildcats have that going for them, which is nice.
Nobody quite knows how it is going to look when it all comes together. But they're all excited to see it.
"That's the crazy part about it," Johnson said. "Every day we're going against each other, but most games, you're not going to go up against another person with the kind of skill-set we see in practice. Thinking about what we'll do all on the same side of things, it's crazy."
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