LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- University of Kentucky basketball is not a place where subtlety thrives. Everything that happens there, from player haircuts to uniform changes, is a big deal.
There's nothing new in the hype coming out of UK's pair of practices opened to select media this week. First, not many were invited who weren't going to report enthusiastically. Second, why shouldn't anyone be enthusiastic? The Wildcats are the No. 1 team in the nation, and bring in the top recruiting class in the nation.
But there is a subtle difference about the latest round of hype. Maybe you have to take a step back to notice it, but it's there, and it's significant.
The reporting I've heard from the first couple of days of practice reports hasn't predominantly been about the team's freshmen. It's been about the guys coming back. Aaron and Andrew Harrison. Dakari Johnson. Even Alex Poythress.
In a news conference previewing his trip to the Bahamas, UK coach John Calipari took something in the neighborhood of 15 questions. Only one of them was about a freshman (point guard Tyler Ulis). A second involved how another freshman, Karl Towns, was faring in competition with Johnson.
That's a major difference from past seasons, and it's worth noting. Calipari certainly notices the difference in practice, where it matters most.
"The biggest things is I have guys that understand, so I can do it the way that I used to coach which is get to the back and watch what they're doing," Calipari said. "I talk them through (stuff). You're not at the front, you're at the back and watch what they're doing. Many of the things 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, we have eight new players and they're all freshmen. Was it eight? Nine? Well, no one talks. They didn't know what to say. They had no idea what to say or what was going on. There were times they were like, ‘Hey, hey, hey.' What does that mean? Like when you say ‘hey,' what am I supposed to do? Now you have guys that are back a year. They have a better idea. They're more comfortable. And, they're challenged. I mean, this team has a fight, they did last year. The majority of the guys are back, so that fight hasn't changed.”
The fact is, this team could've brought in the No. 50 recruiting class and still been a national championship contender. Marcus Lee is going to be a big-time college player. How many centers in the country would you take over Dakari Johnson? And would one of them be Willie Cauley-Stein?
This team didn't need a great infusion of talent, but it got one. Calipari says Towns is better than he expected. The Wildcats don't have Trey Lyles for the Bahamas trip, and that's a loss, but he's an outstanding talent. Ullis gives the Wildcats depth at guard, and gives Calipari some flexibility.
It's more fun to hype freshmen. That's what gets everyone going. But there's more substance to this group Calipari has back.
Calipari says he'll try to approach this Bahamas trip, and I'm paraphrasing what he said, as a true preseason trip, in perhaps the NBA sense. He may platoon his units, subbing five for five. He'll sit back and let assistants take over in stretches.
When asked about the advantages of such a preseason trip -- and there are advantages -- he instead talked about the difficulties.
"Let's talk about the downside. It just makes our season really long," Calipari said. "Part of what we'll probably do when we're down there is I probably won't coach every game. I'll let the assistants coach some of the games. Right now, I'm coaching through the whole practice. I've got 10 days with them and I'm trying to get them, I need the freshmen to know what I'm like to a degree. Right now, everybody's happy go-lucky, when we get ready to play games it'll be a little different, but at least they get the idea of what they'll be held accountable for. When we get down there, we're playing six games in eight days against professional players, which means we probably shouldn't win any of the games, 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. But, it extends our season now. In most cases, we're playing until April."
Other than overstating the competition a bit (a couple of the teams they'll play have a chance to beat UK, the others, probably less, but that's allowed, what coach doesn't do it?) Calipari is low-keying the whole thing. And when was the last time you knew him to low-key something?
This team played its best basketball when Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison were its focal point. College basketball is a guard's game, and those two led UK to the NCAA championship game. As freshmen. They're the keys coming back, no matter how much NBA talent is around them -- and there's plenty.
So from a team standpoint, if those guys are right, Calipari has some time to relax and develop the rest. And that's what he'll focus on in the Bahamas. It's about development. At Kentucky, it's always about winning and losing, of course, but don't expect the coach to take his eye off the development ball.
As for the Harrisons?
"They've lost weight, so they're more athletic, they're playing faster, they're able to sustain," Calipari said. "The other thing is they already know what we're trying to do, 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. So you don't see any of that this year, and the only time they do anything like that is toward each other, like saying something to each other. Short of that, it's been pretty good. The competition makes it so that you have to be on point."
It's been a while since Calipari went into a preseason with a handful of key players he knew he could trust. You can't always do that with freshmen, no matter how good they are.
That's the difference this season. And it could make all the difference.
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