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Summer months crucial as Calipari prepares to shape new team

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The 2013-14 season will be John Calipari's fifth as Kentucky head coach. (Chet White, UK Athletics) The 2013-14 season will be John Calipari's fifth as Kentucky head coach. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The timing of John Calipari's Wednesday press conference was a bit strange.

It had been nearly two months since the end of the 2012-13 season, so there wasn't a lot to talk about on that front. Kentucky's underclassmen made their NBA Draft decisions well over a month ago, so those stories were a bit stale. As for Coach Cal's latest top-rated recruiting class, they all signed nearly four weeks ago and won't arrive on campus for another two or three.

Nonetheless, dozens of reporters packed the Memorial Coliseum media room to hear what Coach Cal had to say on a mid-May morning in a scene that would likely only happen in the Bluegrass.

"I don't even know what this is," said an amazed and unsurprised Calipari.

In effect, it was a mini-media day. Calipari was previewing a season of sorts similar to what he'll do during the real thing in about five months, but there weren't any games or even Big Blue Madness to discuss just yet. Instead, the summer - during which the Wildcats will lay the foundation for the team they'll become - was a primary topic of conversation.

The first step will be for Calipari to determine exactly how he will handle the Cats when they return to/arrive in Lexington in June. With that in mind, Coach Cal is taking the entire basketball staff on a retreat beginning next Monday.

"We're going to have a two-day retreat and what we're primarily going to be doing is (figuring out), 'What do each of these kids need from us?' " Calipari said. "Because every one of these kids we're bringing in need to be coached and they need something from us."

Molding his coaching strategy to each of his players will be a particular challenge this season, if only due to simple arithmetic. With eight newcomers and five returnees on scholarship, Calipari will have the deepest team of his UK tenure. That means the message of unselfishness he delivers every year will be even more important.

"More than any team I've had, shared sacrifice is going to matter in this group," Calipari said. "And they knew that coming here. I told every one of them, 'If you want to shoot 30 balls a game, you don't come here. If you want to be the only guy that's playing - the one guy that everybody's talking about - you wouldn't come here.' "

As well as every Cat might understand that in theory, putting into practice is another matter entirely.   

"To bring that many together, really going to be a challenge," Calipari said. "The galvanizing part of this will start this summer."

That's why Coach Cal is so committed to pursuing every means to that end, even if he has to do things differently than he's used to.

"We have some other things that we're going to do as a team that I have not done in the past that I think will help this team come together," Calipari said. "Some of it is we will watch some movies together of some teams coming together, of what they had to do to sacrifice for each other."

Movies aside, he didn't reveal many details about his plans just yet, but you can rest assured they are informed in part by this past year. Calipari made sure to point out there were elements of UK's NIT season he is proud of, including one thing he believes could pay dividends in 2013-14.

"It's not just 'Did they get better?' It's 'Did they learn about themselves?' " Calipari said. "Because sometimes you learn about yourself in a season - Are you ready? Marquis Teague - and you change it in the season. Sometimes you can't. You're just too young.

"They learn about themselves in a season, know that this isn't going to work, they change and they get better. So part of last season was the beginnings of success for the coming year."

Calipari also did his share of learning during a trying year. He's not about to abandon his players-first philosophy, but Coach Cal has also come to understand shielding players too much can do harm.

"What you learn is you can't protect the players," Calipari said. "You can't protect them from competition. You bring in your group, and the guys that understand competition, that brings out the best. They strive and they get better."

He didn't say the exact phrase as he so often does, but it's clear Coach Cal "likes his team" once more. That begins with the personality he expects it to have.

He was asked on Wednesday about UK's signees saying at the McDonald's All-American Game - where six future Wildcats played - there would be fights at practices next season and Calipari said he likes that mentality, so long as those fights are forgotten outside the Joe Craft Center gym.

"It will drag us to where we're trying to go," Calipari said. "I'm going to tell you: Two years ago we did not have a bad practice. Not one. So that led us to building a swagger and a confidence level that we knew we could win every game we play, we just, let's be at our best and if we weren't and someone got us, fine, next game."

The first reason Calipari cited for his national title team's consistent practice habits was the presence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Now, Coach Cal believes he has at least a couple players - Julius Randle, to name one - who will bring similar effort and a willingness to demand it out of their teammates.

"When you don't have that alpha male at all, you have to do things to try to lead yourself as a coach, and your team can never have the type of success you want," Calipari said. "You try to figure out who that could be or who could step up. A lot of times they are who they are in that regard - those guys who will step up and hold and push the group and not be afraid. That's what you're looking for when you have a good team."

Because he sees that potential, Calipari isn't exactly running away and hiding from the 40-0 buzz surrounding his team. He won't be talking about an undefeated record directly to his team, but the fact that the notion and is out there doesn't scare him even though UK's first loss won't destroy all hope of a successful season.

"Pressure brings out the best," Calipari said. " 'You're going to be fired if you don't get this done. You're not going to make it if you don't get this.' It wakes you up earlier in the morning. I don't mind a little pressure. I've had it my whole career. I've had a gun to my head for 20-something years, and you know what? I'm at my best when the gun is to my head versus where I can kick back and I'm not as good. And you know what? Players are the same."

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