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'I like my team:' Cal's familiar refrain especially meaningful this time

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John Calipari spoke to reporters at UK's annual Media Day on Tuesday afternoon. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) John Calipari spoke to reporters at UK's annual Media Day on Tuesday afternoon. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The question everyone wants to hear answered was being tossed at John Calipari in all different forms.

Just how excited are you for this team compared to where you were a year ago? Does this team have a shot to go 40-0? Should this team be No. 1?

Like a 747 jetting through a rainstorm, Calipari seamlessly deflected the questions.

So, finally, a reporter came out and just said it. He asked, "Independent of experience, is this the most talented team you've had?" (It was as close as anyone was going to get to, "Hey, Coach Cal, is your team every bit as good as everyone is making it out to be?")

And for the first time - and really the only time during his 45-minute Media Day news conference - Calipari was at a loss for words. He paused, thought about saying something, and then paused again.

The silence said it all.

Coach Cal went on to talk about how talented his first Kentucky team was with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, the 2012 title team, and even the 2011 Final Four team that no one thought could make a Final Four. But everyone already knew what Calipari was thinking: Yes this team is good, and he knows it.

"I will tell you," Calipari conceded, "this team is deeper than that (2010) team. We have a couple more (players) that we didn't have."

Calipari, understandably, said he would like for the season to play out a little bit before passing judgment on the merits of this group, but he also couldn't disguise his faith in this team. He certainly hasn't been able to in tweets this past week that have raved about the quality of practice, the surprising play of James Young and the attitude of the players.

All together now: "You won't believe this," Calipari said, "I like my team."

But that statement, perhaps, has never been truer than it is now.

There's the No. 1 recruiting class that features six McDonald's All-Americans. There's All-Southeastern Conference returners in Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, both projected NBA first-round draft picks. There's the veteran leadership of Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson.

Mix those in the fire burning from last year's disappointment and there seems to be a realistic possibility that this Kentucky team could come back stronger than ever. Preseason talk certainly has some of college basketball worried that UK could be starting a wildfire that no one will be able to contain.

"I can't even speak from experience because I've never played a college game," said freshman forward Julius Randle, the anointed leader of the ├╝ber-talented freshman class. "I just know who we have here. It seems like we have a really good team, but Nov. 8 - I think that's our first game - we'll be able to go out there and see what we're really made of."

If the reports from preseason practice are any indication, this team is championship quality.

For one, Calipari is surprised at how good some of his newcomers are. He didn't realize Marcus Lee was athletic as he's been showing when grabs lob passes above the square (Hood said he could grab a quarter off the top of the backboard if he had to). He didn't know Derek Willis could shoot the ball as well as he has. He knew Young was one of the best players in this freshman class, but he was just as shocked as everyone else when NBA scouts came to practice earlier this week and talked about him more than anyone else.

"Really, everybody on the team is good," Poythress said. "Each and every practice you might have a different best player."

And that's where the potential scariness of this team comes in. There's the depth. The improvement of Hood and Polson. The extra practice time this year. The competition. The motivation to right last year's wrongs.

It all has the makings of a special year. The question is, can talent trump inexperience like it did in 2012, or will inexperience jumble the puzzle pieces? Calipari isn't sure if his 2012 team was the exception to the rule or the start of a new trend.

"We had good players, but more importantly, we were the best team (that year)," he said. "We were the most efficient team in the country. We were the best defensive team in the country. They were a great team. We had really good players, but we were a great team."

Does this have the potential to be a great team?

"I don't know," Calipari said. "We've had 10 practices. Today will be our 11th practice. Could we become that? If we choose to."

Calipari has led five previous teams to No. 1 rankings, but he said it's too early to tell if this one will be worthy of the top preseason ranking it is in the discussion for right now.

"Those players have got to come together," Calipari said. "They've got to share. They've got to be good defensively. They've got to be efficient offensively. And my best teams have been that way. We're not near that yet, but the team has a chance."

If there is a potential pothole that Coach Cal fears this early in the season, it is certainly that inexperience factor. Calipari wonders how his team will fare when it gets up on teams and worries that his young guys will put it in cruise control.

"Will they bury them, or do they go show time?" Calipari said. "Do they let up off the gas? If you ask me right now, that will be our Achilles heel early. We'll let up off the gas. We'll have it going good and then back up because that's what they've done their whole lives, and they're 18 years old."

Calipari said sometimes you've got to get "dinged" to be great, a la the 2012 title team when it lost at Indiana, but that would obviously put the 40-0 talk on the shelf.

The talk of perfection isn't something Coach Cal is shying away from - he repeated on Tuesday that he would like to coach a 40-0 team before he retires - but it's also not an end-all goal.

"We don't talk about it as a team," Calipari said. "I mean, it's not like, 'Oh, we're going 40-0.' We don't. The way we do this is a process. .. You may not go 40-0, but you're doing special things."

And special is all Calipari is focusing on right now.

He may not want to come right out and say it, but all signs point to the makings of something special. His silence showed it, his comments about practice have hinted at it and even his players have noticed it.

"You can tell that he's really positive about this year," Polson said. "He's said we've done a really good job in practice. He does have a little extra step this year. He knows the talent but also the competitiveness. I think it's definitely good."

But nobody can blame Calipari for not wanting to come right out and say how good this team is. The polls may place his team at No. 1 and the individual accolades of his players can back it up, but Calipari wants to give it time before declaring just how good this group is.

After all, it isn't even Big Blue Madness yet.

"Let them get on the court," Calipari said. "We've got tough games early. We've got one of the best schedules in the country. We've got one of the most inexperienced teams in the country. So it will be interesting."

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