When Kentucky played Kansas in the national championship game, Lafayette College coach Fran O’Hanlon was pulling for the Wildcats to win.
“I was cheering hard for them. It doesn’t do us any good to say we played the second place team,” joked the Lafayette coach.
That’s because he already knew then his team would be playing coach John Calipari’s Cats this season. He will bring his team to Lexington on Nov. 16 to play UK and two days later Lafayette will play at Morehead to complete its Bluegrass road trip.
O’Hanlon was an assistant at Penn when it played at Rupp Arena and knows what type atmosphere to expect.
“When I was there before we were in an elevator and a 6-year-old girl was saying Penn was in the Ivy League. I thought there are people in Pennsylvania who don’t know that and a 6-year-old UK¿basketball fan knows it,” O’Hanlon said. “It will be a tremendous atmosphere, tremendous basketball.
“Our kids are extremely excited. Hopefully they are working hard.¿I keeping sending them e-mails to remind them what lies ahead and that they better not be resting. I imagine our kids will be a little awe-struck in that arena. I know you are not supposed to write Kentucky and Louisville in the same sentence in your area, but when we played Louisville before we were down 18-0 before we got our feet under us. We have to keep our poise, but you just can’t simulate Rupp Arena. They will have 23,000 or 24,000 people in there and we just can’t prepare for that.”
It will also be UK’s regular-season home opener after two exhibition games and neutral site games against Maryland in Brooklyn and Duke in Atlanta.
“That’s great. They will be handing out the (national) championship trophy. Are you trying to scare me?” O’Hanlon laughed and said. “But seriously, from a prestige standpoint, this is something our kids will remember the rest of their lives. Maybe in 20 years, they will be saying they almost beat Kentucky. Maybe they will be telling we were up 12 with a minute to go and Kentucky had a miraculous rally.”
The Leopards lost five seniors off last year’s team that finished 13-19, including an 89-58 loss at Vanderbilt. It also lost two Patriot League matchups to Lehigh, the team that upset Duke in the NCAA Tournament, and three to Bucknell, the team that beat Arizona in the NIT.
“We think we will have a good team, but not SEC good,” the Lafayette coach said.
He has added five freshmen — 6-10 Nathaniel Musters of Australia, 6-10 center Ben Freeland of California, 6-2 guard Bryce Scott of California, 6-3 combo guard Zach Rufer of ¿New York and 6-9 forward Billy Murphy of Connecticut.
“I have not told Musters about (UK freshman center Nerlens)¿Noel yet,” O’Hanlon said.
The team will have only two seniors. Forward Levi Giese played about 15 minutes a game and averaged 3.1 points. Guard Tony Johnson missed the first 15 games last year with a back injury, returned to play 10 games and then broke a bone in his foot. He averaged 8.0 points, 4.3 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game in the games he did play.
“Tony is a good player. It will be a really good thing for us if he is healthy,” O’Hanlon said. “When you are going to play Kentucky, it’s a good thing to have a point guard who knows what he is doing.”
The Lafayette coach hopes playing Kentucky early in the season could be beneficial to the Leopards since UK¿lost its top six players off the national championship team.
“With a new team like Kentucky, John will have them getting better by the day and week. The earlier you play them, the better,” O’Hanlon said. “Not that it will be a good time for us, but it will be better than later in the season when they are even better.”