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Cats out to make chemistry concerns disappear

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UK's top-ranked 2013 signing class. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK's top-ranked 2013 signing class. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Three seasons into his tenure at Kentucky, John Calipari had become accustomed to having a certain kind of team. Each year he tweaked his style to fit his personnel, but Calipari's teams shared a few defining characteristics, even dating back to his final seasons at Memphis.

They were competitive. They embraced the importance of defense. Players sacrificed for their teammates and were aware of their strengths and weaknesses.

During the 2012-13 season, Coach Cal noticed quickly that the Wildcats weren't all there in those areas. The result was a disappointing campaign that ended in the NIT.

It hasn't taken long, however, for Calipari to figure out 2013-14 will be different. Running his team through an August workout, he had an unmistakable feeling of deja vu.

"It's what I was used to seeing," Calipari said.

Those concerns alleviated, Calipari is shifting his attention.

"The issue for us is going to be how quickly can we come together?" Calipari said.

Fielding his deepest team since 2009-10, Calipari will have to juggle minutes and establish a rotation. With another top-ranked recruiting class and eight players among Chad Ford's top-100 prospects for the 2014 NBA Draft on the roster, Calipari - well established as the NCAA's top producer of next-level talent - faces a challenge the likes of which even he hasn't seen.

The good news is he has a decent track record when it comes to such matters.

In 2011-12, Calipari guided a team featuring six future draft picks - including No. 1 and No. 2 overall - to a national championship. In trying to reestablish UK as the annual contender it was for his first three seasons, Calipari is teaching much more from what that title-winning team did right than what went wrong a season ago.

"I don't want them to think about last year," Calipari said. "They have nothing to do with last year. The only thing we're talking about is: How do you get better, how do you come together as a team, how do you sacrifice for your teammates? Do you know we played Louisville in the Final Four (in 2012)? No one on the team took more than nine shots and we won the game."

That's a particularly instructive example because of an early similarity Calipari sees between the championship team and this year's squad.

With that team, the newcomers were familiar with one another from the AAU and high-school all-star circuit. They visited campus together and bonded with their veteran teammates. That's happened again.

"They got along together before they got here kind of like other teams I've had where, before you walk on campus, they know each other and they like each other," Calipari said. "...This group, you could tell they're hanging around each other, they're following each other."

With most of the roster on campus for classes and workouts during the summer, that process started immediately. Even before the official start of practice, one UK returner is already thinking of his teammates as "siblings."

"I don't see any cliques," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Everybody does everything together, whether we're in one room playing video games or we're out getting something to eat or we're just out doing something walking around campus. Which is crazy because we have 16 people and we're all just squadded up together having fun."

Dakari Johnson echoes the sentiment.

"We've bonded," Johnson said. "When we came in this summer, we bonded with the rest of the guys. And it's crazy because we're so close. Every day we're doing something, we're doing some kind of activity. I think that's good when we have all this training and stuff. It's a long day and you can come back home to jokes and laughs and playing video games with your friends and stuff like that."

Johnson is one of eight members of a freshman class billed already by many as among the best in college basketball history, and the group comes from coast to coast. Johnson is a Brooklyn, N.Y., native and played high-school ball in Florida. Marcus Lee is from California, while Aaron and Andrew Harrison and Julius Randle call Texas home. James Young is from Michigan, while Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins add some Bluegrass flavor.

But as different as their backgrounds may be, the group has meshed relatively seamlessly.

"I think it has to do with how we were all raised as people," Randle said. "Our parents definitely instilled great qualities into us and I think it also has to do with high school and AAU basketball. We've been playing against each other for so long. Now that we're playing together, it's like, 'Man, what a relief. I don't have to go against this guy. He's on my team now.' "

Randle clearly had the Harrison twins on his mind when he said that. The three players - all ranked among's top seven for 2013 - became familiar with one another at an early age and a rivalry bloomed. Rumors about personal dislike between the twins and Randle followed, but were put to rest the day Randle announced he would attend UK.

The twins, however, were delayed by class schedules in arriving on campus and so was Young. But now the entire team is finally together and showing its vast potential.

"It's been great," Randle said. "Those guys, they just take the team to a whole 'nother level. When you see those guys on the court and see how well we play together, it's definitely an eye-opener for how good we can be."

Even with how well things have gone thus far, questions about how the team will come together will persist. How will the Harrisons adjust to being surrounded by so much talent? How will Randle respond to not having the ball in his hands as often? Where will the returners fit in?

Calipari knows no other way to approach those questions than to do it directly, particularly since he knows there's no shielding players from hearing the buzz about themselves.

"So my thing to my team is: What happens? They all sacrifice for each other. Are you willing to do it? And now, what happens here?" Calipari said. "And they're telling me they're sharing the ball. It's amazing. They're passing it to each other. I think they know what's out there. I think the twins know what's said about them. You don't think they look on the Internet and (see) this stuff?"

Ultimately, none of the players on the roster would be at UK if they weren't willing to share, if they weren't willing to compete every day in practice. They chose the school they did because they knew it would best prepare them for their futures and, perhaps even more importantly, to make a run at bringing a national championship back to Kentucky.  

That single-mindedness what Calipari is counting on.

"This group, they want to know, and they know they need each other," Calipari said. "They know it's going to take each of them. We've been kind of clear with individuals what we're having to do and what we're trying to do."

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