Marist-Kentucky Preview

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

Cousins.

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

again.

“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

29-9.

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

roster.

“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

guard.

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

season’s end.

“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

4.7.

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.