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Coach Cal, Cats already hard at work on eve of first exhibition

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John Calipari will coach the Kentucky Wildcats in their first exhibition of 2012-13 on Thursday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) John Calipari will coach the Kentucky Wildcats in their first exhibition of 2012-13 on Thursday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)

It's no secret that John Calipari changes his style of play to fit each of his teams.

His flexibility has been on display through his first three years at Kentucky, as he's molded three very different sets of players into teams contending for championships late in March and into April.

He's now in the initial stages of that same process with a fourth team, but it turns out style of play isn't the only thing he's changing up.

"I'm having more individual meetings than I've had collectively since I've been the coach here already and where are we, 21 days into practice?" Calipari said. "But that's what this team needs, and that's fine. I'm here for them."

The 2012-13 edition of the Kentucky Wildcats is Coach Cal's youngest team to date. It lacks the veteran presence of a Patrick Patterson, a DeAndre Liggins or a Darius Miller, so Calipari is compensating. Regardless, living up to a No. 3 preseason ranking early in the season is a tall order for a team returning just one regular rotation player - Kyle Wiltjer - from last season's title team.

Everyone from fans to players to Calipari himself will get an idea just how far UK has to go on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET when the Cats play host to Northwood in the first of two preseason exhibitions. The Rollie Massimino-coached Seahawks have 11 juniors and seniors and are coming off a trip to the national championship game.

For Northwood, it will be the second game this week against high-profile Division I team after the Seahawks lost at Michigan State 85-57 on Tuesday.

"The greatest thing about playing a team like this, the No. 1 team in NAIA and a team that was down six to Michigan State at half that made nine 3s, that has some post-up game, that has a really quick guard is that the weaknesses or the things we're not doing well will be glaring," Calipari said.

Calipari knows early-season challenges will help his young team, but they don't come without stress. A few more practices, Northwood and Transylvania are the only things that stand between UK and a regular-season schedule that starts with neutral-site games against Maryland and Duke.

"It's kind of scary," Calipari said. "Us getting dinged is not the worst thing, I'm telling you, for these guys to understand you've got to listen, you've got to create habits. You don't have them right now."

Calipari won't hit the panic button if UK should stumble in November or December, and neither should UK fans. Unless Coach Cal stops using his usual refrain, there will be little cause for concern.

"I like my team," Calipari said. "I think we will be good in time."

Perhaps the best reason to like this latest bunch of Wildcats is its remarkable versatility. For all the talent that has paraded through Lexington in recent seasons, it's quite possible that Coach Cal has never had a set of weapons this diverse.

There's Archie Goodwin, the athletic freak who can freely switch between point and shooting guard.

There's Alex Poythress, the matchup nightmare who plays on the perimeter and in the post.

There's Wiltjer, the 6-foot-9 forward who also happens to be probably the best outside shooter on the team.

Don't forget transfer guards Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays, one lightning-quick and the other a wily veteran.

Oh yeah, what about 6-foot-11 Nerlens Noel and 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein, the big-man duo that has forced Calipari to bend former UK head coach Joe B. Hall's ear about playing a twin-tower lineup.

Calipari has experimented with basically every conceivable combination in practice this week.

"It's been interesting," Mays said. "You might see Alex at the four and then you might see the two bigs in together, so it's been an interesting but it's all part of the learning process. Once we continue to practice and continue to put those lineups in at practice, I think we'll show that we mesh better."

Thursday's exhibition will be the first chance for Calipari to do his tinkering against real competition. For the players, that's a welcome change.

"It's tough playing against each other every day," Mays said. "We know the plays, so guys cheat and it's hard to execute. It'll be fun to actually get to play against somebody else."

With just one year of eligibility, Mays' time is short. He is looking forward to playing games, but doesn't want to press the fast-forward button on any of these experiences.

"I'm not in a rush for anything," Mays said. "I know it's going to take time for us to all come together and to get on the same page since we are a brand-new group just now coming together."

Mays' realization is an important one. Players must avoid frustration when their talent doesn't immediately translate into on-court results. At the same time, Calipari is looking for a sense of urgency out of his team, making it a balancing act.

"I think it's more hard work than patience," Calipari said. "I think it's more of a focus on what you're doing than patience. I think it's more taking caring of your body, getting rest, taking care of business off the court, no distractions, let's go. We don't have time for that."

Nothing gets a team's attention like a little adversity, which is exactly what Northwood is going to try to create come Thursday.

"As much as I don't like to play a team this good this early, this is going to be great for this team because the more I'm watching tape, the more I'm seeing they've got to change and they've got to understand that it's got to be a habit," Calipari said.

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