Big expectations return at Kentucky

Kentucky men's coach John Calipari talks with reporters during the SEC college basketball media days in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday.

Published: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 9:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 9:31 p.m.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In another season in which his team was picked to win the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky coach John Calipari was asked if it was fun to go into a season with high expectations.

“The other option is to go in with no expectations,” Calipari said. “I'm not sure I'd want that.”

It wouldn't be Kentucky otherwise. Coming off a humbling season that ended with a first-round NIT loss, the Wildcats were picked to win the SEC in the preseason media poll for the ninth time since 1998-99.

The reason? Kentucky returns two starters (sophomore forward Alex Poythress and sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein) and adds a recruiting class that rival Louisville coach Rick Pitino has dubbed “the best class in the last 20 years.”

Overall, there are seven McDonald's All-Americans on Kentucky's roster — Poythress, 6-foot-9 freshman forward Marcus Lee, 6-9 freshman forward Julius Randle, 6-6 freshman guard James Young, 7-foot freshman center Dakari Johnson, 6-6 freshman point guard Andrew Harrison and 6-6 freshman shooting guard Aaron Harrison.

“We have a talented group of kids that want to be there together,” Calipari said. “I had a scout ask me the other day, 'How are you getting them to buy in?' They know each other, they like each other. They want to play together.”

Will they sacrifice? That's another challenge Calipari will need to deal with during the course of the season. Calipari was a master of massaging egos in his first three seasons at Kentucky which resulted in an Elite Eight appearance, a Final Four appearance and a national title. But the one-and-done approach unraveled during a disappointing 2012-13 campaign that failed to meet expectations.

“It will have nothing to do with scoring the ball if they want to reach their dreams,” Calipari said. “I try to be honest with them. I also tell our guys, 'You're not going to get 30 shots a game, but you may get 30 in a game, if you get it going.'

“So I think on this team, we'll have seven guys, get at least 25 or more, in one game, maybe two, on this team. They've got that much ability. And if that guy gets it going, that's how I coach, just keep giving them the ball.”

So far, Calipari has described the practices as high-energy. He's focused primarily on dribble-drive and scrimmages to build confidence before installing the defense later in drills.

“I've told our guys, 'If you are going to make a mistake, make it playing fast,'” Calipari said.

The collection of talent had Poythress proclaim during the preseason that the Wildcats are capable of going 40-0. Poythress backed off that claim on Wednesday.

“We're just trying to progress as a team,” Poythress said.

But the swagger appears to the back in the Bluegrass State. How long it lasts will depend on how quickly, or if, Kentucky's collection of blue-chip talent comes together.

“We're meshing well,” Poythress said. “Everybody is getting used to playing with each other. The early practices have helped us a lot. Our chemistry is really good so far.”

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