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Cats ready to find out where they are in challenging opener

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Nerlens Noel averaged 16.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in UK's two exhibition wins. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Nerlens Noel averaged 16.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in UK's two exhibition wins. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For the first time in John Calipari's four-year Kentucky tenure, the Wildcats will open the season away from the comforts of Rupp Arena.

Before hitting the road for neutral-site events, Coach Cal set it up so that his young team got to get at least one home game under its belt. And he liked it that way. The home games gave the Cats a chance to find their feet in a more forgiving environment.

But with his most inexperienced team yet, that's about to change. As UK prepares to open the 2012-13 season, there will be very little about facing Maryland in the first-ever college game at the Barclays Center that can be considered forgiving.

And you know what? Coach Cal actually likes it that way.

"This is why I say you play these games early," Calipari said. "I would rather have had a game or two under our belts before we played it. But the reality of it is, this team is so young let's learn it right away. Here's where we are, here's where we're not."

In Calipari's first three seasons, UK won its season openers by an average of 29.7 points, and none by fewer than 16. When UK takes on Maryland Friday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, the Terrapins figure to provide a much stiffer test.  Maryland finished with a 17-15 record in Mark Turgeon's first season as head coach, but he returns the majority of his 2011-12 roster and adds a recruiting class rated 14th in the nation by Rivals.com.

Size is the first thing that sticks out about the Terrapins. They field seven players 6-foot-8 or taller, including Alex Len. The sophomore center stands at 7-1 and will make 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein something other than the tallest player on the floor, which might not happen again this season.

Recognizing their interior size, the Terrapins will try to capitalize.

"Our big guys have their hands full," Calipari said. "Like, if you think you are just going to play, you are going to get screened first or your man is going to screen and then they are posting your man. So they put you in tough situations and they execute. I would imagine the first five or six times down the floor the ball is getting posted."

UK lacks some depth in the post, but it's not as if the Cats are completely ill-equipped to deal with the challenge. As he did in each of the exhibitions, Calipari will mix and match with Nerlens Noel, Cauley-Stein, Wiltjer and Alex Poythress.

"Kentucky makes it so hard to score around the rim," Turgeon said. "This Nerlens Noel kid is one of the best I've ever seen (at contesting shots inside). I watched him play coming out of high school because we recruited a player off the same AAU team and he just changed games. He's a special breed."

He isn't a power forward or center, but Maryland's Dez Wells was very nearly a teammate of Noel's at Kentucky. The 6-foot-5 guard spent his freshman season at Xavier before being dismissed in controversial fashion. Seeking a new school, he visited UK over the summer before eventually becoming a Terrapin.

Wells was a member of the Atlantic-10 All-Rookie Team after averaging 9.8 points and starting 32 games, but it originally appeared he would have to wait a season before making an on-floor impact at his new school. However, he won an NCAA appeal for immediate eligibility on Wednesday and is expected to play on Friday.

"I am happy for him," Calipari said. "I am happy. I hate it when I see kids being held out. Give the benefit of the doubt to the kid if you care about kids. If we are all in this for them, then give the benefit of the doubt to the kid and obviously that is what they have done."

Wells has been practicing with the team since his arrival early this semester. Both Calipari and Turgeon agree he is a game changer, both offensively and defensively.

"He gives us more depth, more versatility and I think he gives everybody around him more confidence, I really do, including the coaches," Turgeon said. "He's got that experience, which we don't have. We don't have a lot of experience and he has some. That's good to have going into the season."

Like Maryland, UK is short on experience, which makes the uncertain statuses of guards Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow concerning. Mays sprained his right leg in Kentucky's final exhibition, while Harrow is dealing with flu-like symptoms. Neither practiced on Wednesday.

If the only two Wildcats who have made collegiate starts - albeit not at Kentucky - are unable to go, junior Jarrod Polson would see an expanded role and share point guard duties with Archie Goodwin.

"We are all comfortable as a staff if he has got to go in and play minutes or significant minutes, we are fine," Calipari said. "He is not going to be like the guy trying to get 30 points, but he has some size with him, he has some toughness with him, he will make open shots. I think he is dying for an opportunity, which is what you want from a player."

Nonetheless, the hope is that both Mays and Harrow are ready come Friday night in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"It changes the rotation a lot (if Mays and Harrow can't play)," Poythress said, "but I think they'll be fine."

With the Northeast still recovering from Superstorm Sandy and a nor'easter dumping heavy snow on the area overnight, UK has switched up its regular road routine. Instead of leaving Lexington in the afternoon after practice, Kentucky left Thursday morning and will practice upon arrival in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center.

The disruption might be a concern for another team, but these Cats don't know any better. Most of the players expected to play major minutes haven't played in a college game, let alone been on a road trip as Wildcats.

"We just got to go out there like it's a normal game," Poythress said of the uniqueness of the game and the big stage that will accompany it. "You can't get too excited for it. You just got to come in there focused hard and get the job done."

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