There’s no question the Kentucky basketball team will have a different look next season, with six players lost to graduation or the NBA and five newcomers entering the program.
But it remains to be seen whether those newcomers will jell as well as last year’s freshmen, which of the returning players will play larger roles and just what the Wildcats will look like come November when they begin defense of their national championship.
One thing is certain however: If coach John Calipari has his way, Kentucky will once again be a great defensive team.
“I want us to be a great defensive team like we have been. I want us to lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense, in blocked shots like we did this year. It would even be nice to have the best winning percentage in college basketball, which means you’re probably playing the last weekend of the season,” Calipari said Monday during his visit to Boyle County High School for one of his summer satellite camps.
As for the offense, there are question marks, but there are also options. And Calipari said he thinks his work with the Dominican Republic national team this summer will help him answer some of those questions.
“I don’t know how this team will piece together. I do think the stuff I’m doing this summer is going to really help, because we will be a European(-style) team,” he said.
Calipari shared his thoughts on how some of the newcomers will contribute, and on other subjects from the expanded Southeastern Conference schedule to the importance of pre-draft workouts for those former Wildcats about to enter the NBA during an interview Monday at Boyle County High¿School.
Are there concerns given the fact that this year’s team will be even younger than last year’s team?
“I would rather everybody came back. That would have been fun. But ... they win a national title, they have a 3.2 grade-point average the second term, 10 out of 14 guys have a B average, Darius (Miller) and Eloy (Vargas) walk and get their college degrees, and now six of them are going to be drafted. That’s like a whole day right there. So that happens, and you move on to another group.
“And now my challenge to the other group is, ‘Look, you didn’t win a national title. You’re not defending a national title, because they can’t take it. It’s already there, it’s on the shelf, it’s done. What you’re trying to do is be the best team you can be and not worry about it.”
How easy or difficult is it to get that message across?
“The good news is, I don’t have any problem with them. Two years ago, three years ago, all those teams talked about Final Fours and national titles, they all did, and that doesn’t bother me. This team is the same: Let’s go out and win another one.
“It’s very hard (to win a championship), especially at Kentucky where you’re everybody’s Super Bowl. Two years ago we lost six league games, we were 10-6. I kept saying, ‘I like my team.’ We ended up getting to the Four, and probably should have won the national title if we’d have just played a little better in that semifinal. We played awful.
“I’m excited about the team, but it’s not going to be easy.”
How might center Nerlens Noel be different from last season’s center, Anthony Davis, and how do you think you will use him?
“Hopefully in the same way as we used Anthony. Hopefully he ends up leading the nation in blocked shots. But what I’m trying to tell him is you want to be a player who happens to block shots, not a shot-blocker. Anthony was a player who happened to block shots versus being a shot-blocker.
“But it’s nice when you have that, you have Willie Cauley, you have Kyle Wiltjer, you have three guys that are 6-10 or better that you have in the program. That gives us three guys with pretty good size along with Alex (Poythress) and Archie (Goodwin), who have pretty good size, too.”
Little has been said about freshman center Cauley, but might his upside be greater than most because he will be playing only basketball instead of splitting his time between basketball and football?
“And tennis. He’s one of those guys who can play all sports. He could play soccer. And he’s excited. The best part with him, he’s up to 230 (pounds) already, (and) he’s excited about getting after the weights and getting after the conditioning, because he knows that he’s never done it.
“And he said to me, ‘I can’t wait to get started, so when I go home in eight weeks, people are going to look at me and say, ‘What happened?’’ That’s him saying it to me, and I told him, ‘You’re going to be going by mirrors in about three weeks, four weeks, looking at yourself in the mirror, taking your shirt off so you can see yourself.’ That’s all part of a guy like him growing.”
Is it possible Cauley’s family and friends might not recognize him when he goes home at the end of the summer?
“I’m hoping that’s the case. So does he.”
What do you think power forward Poythress will do best?
“Our four man is going to be our best 3-point shooter, maybe the best in the country, and he’s a four man. So now how do you guard this stuff?
“You have a guy at the rim you can throw lobs to, you can’t help off the four. Our twos and threes can score the ball. Having an opportunity for Ryan Harrow or even Archie or even Julius (Mays) to play some if we need to. And we’ve still got Jarrod Polson, who got better.
“This team, I don’t know yet how exactly we’ll play offensively, but we’ll be different than a year ago,” Calipari said. “I didn’t want Terrence (Jones) to shoot a thousand 3s. Now you’ve got Kyle Wiltjer, who can play in the post. We can pass it to him in the post and he can score it, yet you can play through a big man if you choose to.”
What attracted you to Mays, a guard who spent two years at North Carolina State and one year at Wright State before transferring to Kentucky for his final season?
“He’s a veteran guard who started at N.C. State. You understand that he is a major college player. He went to Wright State and was their leading scorer. He knows how to play, a great flow to the game, he can play the one or two. That’s exactly what we needed.
“He’s a great kid, no sidebar issues. The thing about playing at Kentucky, those things are absolutely highlighted. Stuff that happens in another program is not that big a deal. If it happens at Kentucky, it’s on “First Take,” it’s on the ticker, they’re doing a “30 for 30” movie on it. That’s just how it is. So when you’re talking (about) a kid like him, he’s an A/B student, he graduated, he’s going to graduate school.
“Say we start three freshmen and two sophomores, that’s what we did this year; we have a senior and a freshman off the bench, that’s what we did this year. So you talk about us being young again, yeah, we’re about as young as we were this year.”
What kind of improvement do you expect from Wiltjer in his second season?
“Just stronger, more mature. The funny thing is, he hasn’t started shaving yet. My (15-year-old) son’s started to shave. Kyle Wiltjer is very young for his age. His dad’s almost 7 feet tall; wouldn’t it be nice if we all turn around and we look at him and say, ‘You’re still growing,’ and then to still have the skill set that he has?”
Will the expanded Southeastern Conference schedule present more of a challenge this season, and could there even be league games played in December?
“I don’t know about that, but it will be more of a challenge because you’re talking about two NCAA tournament teams in Missouri and Texas A&M added to our schedule, one at home and one on the road. We still have the (SEC/)Big East Challenge, so that gives us a 19th league game out of 30 games.
“Then you start talking, ‘Well, you’ve got a home-and-home with another two,’ so now you’re talking 21, 22. And now you add some exempt games, and you have three games. So now you’re at 25, 26 games. Wait a minute, who are we supposed to beat here? I mean, it’s not easy when you start racking up those numbers.
“So we’ve got a tough schedule, as tough as we always do, and the league schedule’s gotten harder. The Big East challenge is hard, it’s at Notre Dame, they have a winning streak there, they don’t lose at home. It’ll be a tough road for us.”
What do you expect the atmosphere to be like at the Kentucky-Duke game Nov. 13 in Atlanta?
“I think it’ll be crazy. Atlanta’s been good to us. New Orleans has been good to us. They’re good places for our fans to go. Indianapolis is a great place for our fans to go, St. Louis is a great place for our fans to go. I’m thinking Dallas is going to be an outstanding place for our fans to go spend a weekend.”
Have the draft projections for the six players expected to be selected remained largely the same, and will pre-draft workouts do much to change the picture?
“These workouts will depend whether they move three or four notches one way or another. So there’s a six five swing of all of them except for Anthony. Michael’s (Kidd-Gilchrist) going to be two or three, I don’t think he’ll get to four. But everybody else, (Jones) could be anywhere from seven to 13, the next guy’s (Marquis Teague) probably 18 to 24, the next guy’s (Doron Lamb) probably 21 to 25 and then Darius is right there (at) 25 to 32.
“You would think that they’d watched them all year, what does this workout matter? But it does matter. I guess they don’t evaluate as good as they think, because it’s important that they have these kids in, and it’s important that they interview well, it’s important that they play well.”
What is the significance of having six players drafted from a single team?
“It’s funny, after this we’ll have 15 guys in three years. Someone just told me we had six players in the last five years that were on the all-rookie team, which means those kids are doing well.
“You get away from this and see it’s not normal. That’s never happened. In the history of our sport, five kids (from one school) had never gone in the first round until we did it two years ago. Six have never gone, and six have never been drafted, whether it’s first or second round, at one time. So (in) this team and this program, kids have that opportunity. You’re talking 15 in the last three years, which is pretty amazing.”
Will you be in New York again on draft night?
“Yep. I’ll be up there the 28th, and I leave from there for Venezuela to coach the Dominican Republic national team.
What do you look forward to about coaching the Dominican team for a second straight year and about the trip to Caracas, Venezuela, for the 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament July 2-8?
“Just learning. I hope I do a good job for their team and help put them in the best position I can to give them an opportunity to win. But I’m learning. (Former NBA coach and Dominican assistant coach) Del Harris and I spent a week together, and it’s great being around him and exchanging ideas.
“And watching the tapes of the teams we’ve got to play is outstanding, because I get to see all these other teams and how they’re playing and get ideas from my team. I just told Kyle Wiltjer today there’s a lot of stuff I’m doing that’s going to be perfect for him.”
What do you enjoy most about satellite camps such as the one Monday at Boyle?
“First of all, you know that a lot of these kids would not be able to go to our basketball camp in Lexington for one reason or another. Probably, (if) we get a hundred kids, we’ll get 400 adults, and of those adults have never met the basketball coach at the University of Kentucky.
“The other thing, I went to the last high school, and three cafeteria workers came flying out, (saying), ‘Will you take a picture with me?’ My mother worked in a cafeteria at a junior high school, and both grandmothers worked in cafeterias, so you see those ladies and you put a smile on their face.
“But it gets us to go out and reach out into the commonwealth and touch a lot of kids, make a lot of people smile.”
You don’t take much down time, but are you taking some this summer?
“After the Winged Foot Award (presentation last month) we took a week, and then around the SEC meeting we took a week. That’s more than I normally take at this time of year. And then I’ll probably take another week in August at some point and go somewhere, and for me to take three weeks is a long time.”