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Calipari relying on competition to shape young team

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From left to right, Julius Randle, Derek Willis, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee make up a deep UK frontcourt. (Chet White, UK Athletics) From left to right, Julius Randle, Derek Willis, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee make up a deep UK frontcourt. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari's instinct will always be to shield his players. Whether it's from fan criticism, media scrutiny or their own bad habits, it's just in his nature to protect.

But Coach Cal has learned anything as a coach and as a parent, it's that there is one thing from which he absolutely cannot hide young people.

"You can't save these kids from competition," Calipari said. "I can't save my own children from competition. That's the United States. That's what we're about."

Even so, Calipari admits he spent much of a disappointing 2012-13 season fighting that immutable truth. He put together a thin roster of just eight Wildcats recruited as scholarship student-athletes, betting on talent and his own track record of maximizing it.

It didn't take long to discover that competition was missing from the equation. And by trying to save his players from that competition, Calipari ended up doing them more harm than good.

"You can't do it that way," Calipari said. "I know there is a number that is too many, but you can't do what we did a year ago, and that was my own (doing). It's what I did. It was my choice. You look back and say we put the kids in a bad position on a lot of fronts."

Calipari often talks about the bench being the most powerful motivator. But with minimal options, he had to ride players who would have been better served taking a breather.

"It's kind of like you're playing golf and it goes south, so you try to play 27 more holes and it just gets worse," Calipari said. "Your best bet is when it started to go south, go home, have a beer, laugh about it, and then go out tomorrow and you play better."

With added depth this season, players won't have to keep teeing it up when they get a case of the shanks.

Calipari signed an eight-member signing class hailed by many as among the best in college basketball history. The six McDonald's All-Americans and two in-state stars who comprise the class join returners Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson. Add in freshman EJ Floreal and three more returning walk-ons and you have a 16-member roster that dwarfs last year's.

It's not the raw numbers that will make the Wildcats special this year; it's the way players approach practice.

"Everybody's super-competitive," said Julius Randle, the nation's second-ranked freshman. "I kind of already knew before coming in because I've played so many of these guys in AAU, but everybody's competitive. We all hate to lose and we just take a lot of pride in our game."

Randle has been involved in one of the more intriguing individual battles in pick-up games in practice. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward has been a matchup nightmare throughout his basketball career, but goes head to head with a near-athletic equal in Alex Poythress (6-8, 239) daily.

"In high school, guys aren't going to be as good as you on your team, so it's easy to say, 'I can take a day off,' or 'I don't have to come with the same intensity,' and you still may dominate," Randle said. "But you know you're going to have to be on your game every day when you come in here. You're going to have focus and work hard."

A season ago, Poythress didn't have a peer pushing him in that way. The hope, now, is that Randle's presence will lift Poythress's game to a new level.

"You don't feel like playing today or I don't feel like embarrassing anybody, well, the choice is you embarrass him or he's embarrassing you," Calipari said. "It's not about not embarrassing anybody. You embarrass him or he's embarrassing you. So now all of a sudden you start changing. You're like, whoa, how do I do this? What do I do?"

"It pushes you every day," Poythress said. "It brings out the competitor in you."

That's true at nearly every position. At point guard, Andrew Harrison has to take on Hawkins. On the perimeter, Aaron Harrison and James Young face off. In the post, it's Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson.

"It's tremendous," Cauley-Stein said. "Everybody has a competitive spirit this year. Nobody wants to lose. Nobody likes losing. And the pick-up games are crazy. They're like all-star games. So the talent level and the amount of competitiveness on the court is unbelievable. It's hard to explain. You've got to watch it for yourself."

With competitiveness taken care of, a couple new issues have arisen for Coach Cal.

First of all, how does he manage his rotation? Does he press and play 10 guys? Does he follow the advice John Wooden gave him during the 2009-10 season and cut down his rotation? Does he go big? Does he go small?
 
"Luckily, I'm not a coach. That's not my job. I'm just going to go out there and play and lead this team. That's that man up there's job," Randle said, pointing to Calipari's office.

The other problem with such a talented, versatile group won't rear its head until the end of the season. After UK won the national title in 2012, six Cats went on to the NBA Draft and Calipari had to reload. Following a workout late this summer, Coach Cal realized something similar could happen in the spring.

"I went home and I was singing to myself and back and ready start talking crap again and here we go, and then what popped in my mind?" Calipari said. "Oh my gosh, these guys are all going to leave. Where's my phone? And now I'm calling (recruits). I made two calls before I got home, and you know I don't live that far from (the Joe Craft Center)."

Coach Cal, however, needs only think back to a season ago to remind himself there are worse problems to have.
 

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