John Calipari embraces being a player’s first college coach and
he has yet another crop of talented freshmen eager to end
Kentucky’s national championship drought.
Going into his third season, Calipari also has some veterans
returning to help ease the path back to a second straight Final
Four for the Wildcats, ranked No. 2 in preseason poll.
“I’ve got a good team,” said Calipari, whose squad opens the
season Friday night at home against Marist.
Terrence Jones pulled his name out of the NBA draft at the
deadline, and now the sophomore forward is the Southeastern
Conference’s preseason player of the year. He’s back with senior
guard Darius Miller and sophomore guard Doron Lamb to go along with
six freshmen led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and
Marquis Teague as the preseason favorites to win the SEC.
It’s Calipari’s third straight No. 1 recruiting class and the
group could mirror his first that included John Wall and DeMarcus
Not that any of the Wildcats are talking about how much they
want a national title, which would be Kentucky’s first since 1998
and eighth overall.
“It hasn’t been discussed, but it’s what everyone wants,” Jones
said. “I know it’s what everyone wants. We haven’t talked about it
as a team, but it’s what everyone’s goal is.”
The clock is running on Calipari as well.
He won 35 games, the SEC title and had five Wildcats become
first-round NBA draft picks, which he said may never be done
“Unless we do it here of course,” Calipari said.
Last season, he followed that up by winning the Wildcats’ 27th
SEC tournament title en route to their first Final Four since 1998.
They lost in the national semifinal to Connecticut and finished
Not that Calipari sounds worried about how the season ends as
long as he focuses on his players.
“This is kind of like my first year and a couple other years
where I’ve had where you’re in a short order trying to get a group
of talented players together to play,” he said.
“If you’ve ever coached this sport, you know, to get freshmen
to, one, play without the basketball on offense, to make hard cuts
that don’t really matter for the play, to make the extra pass, to
not worry about stats, and then defensively play off the ball, to
do all of the things to help your team, it’s just hard. I would
like to get them to talk to one another on the court. That stuff’s
hard, and it takes time.”
Calipari and the Wildcats must come together quickly with the
season opener before hosting Kansas and Penn State. North Carolina
visits Dec. 3 with Commonwealth State rival Louisville at Rupp on
Dec. 31. Then Kentucky dives into the SEC with the toughest road
games Feb. 11 at Vanderbilt, at Mississippi State on Feb. 21 and
Florida in the regular season finale March 4.
Jones is his top returning scorer averaging 15.7 points per
game. Lamb averaged 12.3 points, while Miller averaged 10.9 points.
Jones said they have a lot of interchangeable players with this
“We’ve got long players and players that remind me of myself
when it comes to blocking shots and working hard,” Jones said. “I
just wanted to come back and win. I don’t care about who I have to
guard. I just like playing basketball. It doesn’t matter what
position I’m in.”
Calipari’s bigger challenge will be adapting to a roster that
doesn’t have a true center. The 6-foot-10 Davis from Chicago may
wind up filling that role, and Teague, the younger brother of the
NBA Atlanta Hawks’ Jeff Teague, is expected to start at point
Teague has been busy in the weight room, going from 170 pounds
when he arrived on campus to 187.
“You have to go hard here,” Teague said. “It has improved my
game. I can take bumps a lot better when I’m going to the basket so
it has helped me to be able to finish better.”
Calipari said having a freshman point guard could be torture
early on with turnovers and bad shots, and the coach said he has to
make sure to keep him out of foul trouble early because of his
physical defense. He knows early games likely will feature 16
turnovers or more, which he expects to be closer to 11 or 12 by
“At the end of the year, this offense unleashes you as a point
guard,” Calipari said. “It just does.”
And it’s all part of Calipari’s grand plan.
Marist is coming off a 6-27 season, though that was an
improvement from 2009-10 when the Red Foxes went 1-29. However,
they lost leading scorer Sam Prescott (11.4 points per game) along
with Candon Rusin and Menelik Watson when the trio decided to
transfer after last season. Rusin averaged 7.8 points and Watson
Returning are guard R.J. Hall, who averaged 9.2 points in 19
games before being lost for the second half of the season due to
academic issues, along with swingman Dorvell Carter (7.7 ppg) and
guard Devin Price (7.2). Sophomore swingman Jay Bowie averaged 6.4
points and 4.2 rebounds in 2010-11.
Kentucky and Marist will be meeting for the first time.