John Calipari and Kentucky finished two games short of perfection last season.
A mostly made-over team has started well in picking up that quest, and the second-ranked Wildcats will try to avoid a letdown Friday night versus Wright State.
Kentucky (3-0) won its first 38 games last season before falling to Wisconsin in the national semifinals. Calipari then completed his annual reload with a stacked recruiting class to fill the void created by lottery picks Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker continuing on to the NBA along with second-rounders Andrew Harrison and Dakari Johnson.
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Some of the freshmen have been as good as advertised despite Calipari's harping on their shortcomings. Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere lead the team in scoring at 14.3 and 14.0 points per game, respectively, and Isiah Briscoe has averaged 11.5 points and 7.5 rebounds. But holdovers Tyler Ulis, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress played key roles in Tuesday's 74-63 win over No. 5 Duke in the Champions Classic at Chicago.
The trio combined for 37 points, including a game-high 18 from Ulis along with six assists.
“The game's happening slower for him,” Calipari said of Ulis, who did not have a turnover while playing the full 40 minutes. “He's a skilled player with a great feel for the game and you see his leadership on the court.”
While Lee had 10 rebounds to push his team-best average to 8.7, Poythress grabbed seven boards for a second straight game and Calipari is looking for him to be more dominant on the glass.
“I want Alex to be … an elite athlete going after every ball, rebounding above the rim,” he said. “That's hard. I know it's hard, but again, it's trying to get these guys to understand, the best version of you is when you're the elite athlete that you are.”
That tunnel-vision focus Calipari has for his players creates his expectations to contend for a second NCAA Tournament title and fifth Final Four in seven seasons with the Wildcats. While they've held opponents to 38.3 percent shooting – behind last season's 35.4 percent that led Division I – the coach is looking to improve game-to-game as they deal with the pressure that comes with being Kentucky.
“If we lose to Wright State, you people in Kentucky will think I should be fired,” Calipari said after beating Duke. “So, you're really happy with me today, 'Cal's the best. He's unbelievable.' You lose to Wright State, 'Let's get him – the game has passed him by. He's too old.' This thing at Kentucky is a different deal.
“If we learn to fight every possession, play the guy before he catches the ball, be alert defensively and stay in a stance and really bounce and play off one another we're going to be really good. If we don't, we'll be an average team.”
Even if Kentucky regresses to average, it may still prove too much for Wright State (1-2). The Raiders dropped their final two games in the eight-team NIU Showcase at DeKalb, Illinois, capped with a 65-59 defeat to host Northern Illinois on Sunday.
Sustaining momentum has proven problematic for the Raiders, who blew a 14-point second-half lead in losing to Cal State Northridge and squandered an eight-point halftime advantage against the Huskies. J.T. Yoho had 16 points and Joe Thomasson added 15 and seven rebounds for Wright State, which is shooting 47.1 percent (32 for 68) from 3-point range.
The smaller Raiders, whose last regular-season non-conference win over a ranked opponent was a 63-59 upset of then-No. 6 Michigan State on Dec. 30, 1999, have been outrebounded by 6.3 per game thus far.
Wright State has lost all three meetings with Kentucky, the last coming in 1998.