John Calipari at UK's annual Media Day on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
All the talk last year was 40-0.
Could Kentucky win them all? Could the 2013-14 group become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to go undefeated? What would be the biggest challenge in UK's pursuit of perfection?
Silly Cats -- they never stood a chance.
Kentucky, as we all know now, would fold in the first half of last season under such overwhelming expectations. Supremely talented but characteristically naïve for young guys, the freshman-dominated team lost early and unexpectedly often during spots of last season.
Technically speaking, the Cats never fully embraced the idea of going 40-0, but they sure as heck didn't downplay the talk either. In hindsight, the older, wiser players admitted at Thursday's Media Day that they drank the Kool-Aid.
"We focused on we've got to win the national championship instead of taking it one game at a time," Andrew Harrison said. "We overlooked some teams. We didn't focus on every practice, every drill and every possession at practice. We paid for it."
They're hell-bent on making sure history doesn't repeat itself this season.
One year since the 40-0 talk hit a tipping point at last season's Media Day, there was no talk of historic achievements, no tiptoeing around the possibility of perfection, not even a whisper from the head coach who has admitted that he would one day like to go 40-0 - just because, he says, people say it can't be done.
With a team that probably has a better shot than last year's group did of going undefeated because of the increase in depth, experience and talent, not a single player talked about 40-0 on Thursday other than to downright squash the talk.
"We're not going to get caught up in the 40-0 talk again like we did last year," Dakari Johnson said.
Said fellow sophomore Dominique Hawkins: "We're definitely not saying 40-0 because of last year, what happened. We just feel like we need to compete and play our best. Like Coach Cal said, we're going to take it one game at a time."
Ah, the old "one game at a time" talk. But perhaps there's actually substance in the old sports cliché with these Wildcats.
See, last season, as Hawkins explained, they got caught up in the big picture of the expectations. They heard the talk of the 40-0 and they enjoyed it. They wanted to make history and certainly had the talent to do so.
"Coming in freshman year, we probably thought it was going to be easier than we thought," Hawkins said.
The problem was, in looking so far down the road, they forgot all the pit-stops along the way. Before they knew it, they weren't even halfway down the road with a couple of flat tires and a leaky transmission.
Fortunately for UK, the engine was still running at season's end.
"I'd never been through starting five freshmen," Calipari said Thursday. "I don't know of many people (who have). So there were things that we went through that it took time."
The Cats say youth had every bit to do with buying into the hype last year.
"It's hard transitioning from high school where no one's really saying much about you or you have a bad days and it's just like, it's just a bad day, it doesn't really matter," sophomore Marcus Lee said. "But in college, you have a bad day, it's blown up. You hear it for three days. And then you have that from that game to the next game to try to change your mindset. It's just something you learn by doing it."
Calipari calls it the process, something he swears by doing this year despite the allure of the final product.
"You cannot skip steps," he said Thursday.
Keep in mind, less than two hours earlier his team had just received the official stamp of preseason hype when it was voted the No. 1 team in the first USA Today Coaches' Poll of the year.
And yet Calipari was more interested in talking about losses this time around than how his team will avoid them.
"Is this going to be easy? No," he said. "How about this? Will there be bumps in the road? Oh yeah. We probably, in all likelihood, are going to lose a couple games. ... I have to be patient, too, and understand that's going to be part of the process."
The process stuff is nothing new from Calipari, but it fell on deaf (and freshman) ears last season.
"As players, we're young and we don't really understand sometimes the stuff that he's trying to tell us to get in our minds," Hawkins said. "When he said it over and over, that's what helped us realize that we needed to do that."
Only then, when the season was at its last stop, did the players fully understand what their head coach was talking about. Fortunately for them, it wasn't too late.
"Now we realize that since we played last year that every game is going to be someone's Super Bowl when they play against us," Hawkins said.
The difference this year is the Cats now know that from the outset.
"We've learned not to think about the season as a whole and just to think game by game and day by day, just to get better," Lee said. "We're more prepared because we're a year older, college wise, and we kind of know what to expect. We know how to get through tough times better. It's easier to deal with it ... when half the team already knows how to deal with it."
The only expectations this Kentucky group is concerned with are its own.
"The only expectations I have, again, making this work for all these kids," Calipari said. "If we do that, they'll drag this where it's supposed to go."
Alex Poythress starred for Kentucky on the Big Blue Bahamas tour in August. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are Kentucky basketball's odd couple.
Poythress is the quiet one. With the media, he's polite but reserved. On the court, he lets his game do the talking.
Cauley-Stein, on the other hand, will never be mistaken for shy. From his candid, often off-the-wall answers in interviews to his tweets all the way down to his clothes, his personality comes through.
The contrast might make the two juniors seem unlikely to share a bond, but you won't find two players on the team closer than Poythress and Cauley-Stein. In fact, it's their differences that bring them together.
"He's more outgoing, talking, doing a lot of stuff," Poythress said. "I'm more laidback, chill. That's probably why we get along."
They get along so well that when John Calipari learned Cauley-Stein would bypass the NBA Draft, he immediately figured Poythress would do the same.
The word "brother" comes up often when Cauley-Stein and Poythress talk about one another. The two suitemates also agree that their ages (Cauley-Stein is the elder by 19 days) belie the true nature of their relationship.
"Even though he's younger than me, he's like the older brother," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm the kind of dude that wants to go outside and see everybody and always on the move, and he's always the dude that's like, I'm going to stay in the room and watch a movie and do grown-people stuff and I'm always trying to experience all the fun stuff."
For all his "grown-people stuff" off the court, Poythress has taken his time blossoming as a player on it. Given his personality, that makes some sense.
Through two college seasons, Poythress has alternated in equal measure between showing flashes of his ability to dominate and a propensity to fade into the background. There have been games like his 20-point outburst against Duke as a freshman and outings like the one just two weeks later at Notre Dame when he attempted just one shot.
It should come as no surprise that Poythress' longest sustained stretch of consistent play coincided with UK's run to the national championship game. Even still, Poythress was but a supporting cast member, providing a versatile defensive presence, rebounding and the occasional jaw-dropping play.
Once the run was over, he had a decision to make. In spite of what Coach Cal may have thought after Cauley-Stein announced his return, Poythress made the call on his own.
"I talked to the coaches, talked to my mom, talked to my dad, my sisters and my family and I just weighed my options," Poythress said. "I feel like I made the right decision to come back."
Based on early returns, Poythress appears poised to prove himself right.
Showing off what assistant John Robic called a "rebuilt engine," Poythress averaged 11.8 points - tops on the team - and 5.7 rebounds on a six-game Bahamas tour. The raw numbers aren't far off from his production through his first two seasons, but he posted them playing just 18.8 minutes per game on UK's starting platoon.
Anyone who has spent much time watching Poythress during his UK career doesn't need to look at any numbers to know the player on the floor this August was different.
"I was coming with the mindset that I'm playing good these games," Poythress said. "Coming in with that mindset, I'm going at people, making a statement really."
Physically, Poythress is still the imposing 6-foot-8, nearly 240-pound specimen he's always been. He still wears No. 22 on his jersey and a stoic expression on his face too. Inside is where Poythress has changed.
"Probably mentally," Poythress said. "Just being more focused. Mentally, being more prepared. I've been here two years. I know what to expect. Just going in and make sure I do it."
The scary thing for UK's opponents this season is Calipari still sees room for improvement. He knows the platoon system presents some unique challenges he'll have to navigate with Poythress to make sure his growth continues, but the progress the Clarksville, Tenn., has made so far is indisputable.
"He may be a guy that needs more minutes just to get more comfortable playing because, you know, that's the biggest thing with him is the comfort level in his game," Calipari said. "But, you know ... there are things he has to be able to do to be special. Because he has, you know, he's just getting so much better. ... I can't even believe he's the same player."
His evolution as a player has been accompanied by growth as a leader. Poythress is the first to admit that getting in the face of a younger teammate doesn't come naturally to him, but he also knows he'll be called on to do just that given his experience playing on one team that was bounced in the first round of the NIT and another that came up a win shy of a title.
"You can be the most laidback person off the court, but on the court you gotta speak up, you gotta be more vocal," Poythress said. "I'm doing a better job of that."
Coach Cal has had players who were able to do that the moment they arrived on campus. For even those who can't, it's still the assumption that true freshmen should be able to dominate on the court from day one.
Poythress is a reminder of how unfair that expectation is and that deviating from the one-and-done path doesn't signal failure.
"I'm a junior now," Poythress said. "It just takes people different times. Ain't nothing wrong with that. There's a lot of great players in the pros that played in college for three years. You're not really trying to worry about that. You're just trying to do what you can, however long it takes you. Just trying to take baby steps, really."
Andrew and Aaron Harrison will anchor the UK backcourt in their sophomore season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Alone they may have faltered. Together they were strengthened.
For as long as they can remember - really since they day they were born - the Harrison twins have been there for each other, by each other's side through everything they've done. They rose through the basketball ranks together, blossomed into young men together and decided to go to the same college together.
They've done everything you'd expect twins to do -- as one.
But their relationship last year came in handy when they faced the most difficult year of their lives.
As the point guard and floor general of the team, Andrew Harrison probably took more heat than Aaron did last season when Kentucky failed to meet regular-season expectations, but both felt the brunt of UK's struggles and - fairly or unfairly - took the blame when there was plenty of it to go around.
"We struggled," Andrew Harrison said in preseason interview last month. "It was tough, but at the same time it makes you a man."
The Harrison twins arrived on campus last year heralded as saviors following the highly disappointing 2012-13 NIT season. Their tough-minded approach and distaste for losing were supposed to be two key character traits that wouldn't let recent history repeat itself.
In everyone's mind, the twins wouldn't tolerate anything like what happened the season. As a sign read in Rupp Arena during the 2013 NCAA Tournament that UK wasn't included in, "Keep calm, the twins are coming."
The underlying message of the sign was loaded with expectations. What no fan wanted to realize is even the twins weren't ready to carry the burden of redemption.
Part of it was because they still had some growing up to do and part of it was they were freshmen. But overlooked in all of UK's regular-season struggles a season ago was just how significant the twins' absence during summer workouts was to the team's overall development.
John Calipari didn't want to make a big deal out of it at the time - and what coach would when you're trying to build confidence in your team - but it stunted the growth of the twins and the Wildcats.
"Killed them," Calipari said. "Killed them. And what it killed was their conditioning. It took them until the middle of January to really--think about the play--couldn't run back, didn't want to keep playing so they'd do a body language thing. And then they'd look, is anybody watching? Because they were trying to stop. ... It was a killer for them."
By midseason, people were calling them busts. They were slip-sliding down NBA Draft boards faster than a bobsled on ice.
"Andrew was really criticized last year," Aaron Harrison said. "I think one of the most criticized players in the country, so we just had to stick together."
Easier said than done.
Among the biggest criticisms the Harrison twins' faced was their body language. When things went south or something didn't go their way, they were prone to react negatively with scowls on their faces and noticeable defeat in their shoulders. They let one play affect the next, and sometimes it was contagious to their teammates.
That criticism of the Harrison twins, Calipari will tell you, was fair.
What wasn't fair was the association it connected them to. Just because they were reacting negatively on the court, some people began to question their character. Unfairly, some people labeled them as bad kids.
"I feel like people just put that out there before," Andrew Harrison said. "All you can do is prove them wrong and just play basketball. You can't really focus on what other people say about you."
But truth be told, who wouldn't be bothered by that? Under the strict guidance of their parents, the Harrisons were brought up with impeccable manners that belied the bad-boy rumors.
The Harrison twins. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Soft spoken as they can be, you would be hard-pressed to have a conversation with them without hearing "yes sir" or "yes ma'am" a half-dozen times.
"It's my parents," Andrew Harrison said of their manners. "They instilled it in me. I can't help it. Sometimes people say, 'Don't do that,' but I can't help it. I have to say it to everybody."
Knowing that side of his twin guards and hearing some of the stuff he heard from outsiders last year irked Calipari.
"What happens with some of you guys," Coach Cal said, "is you have an opinion and then you've got to prove that opinion right, so you'll never change. 'Here's my opinion.' Well, are you not watching? Hmm. 'That's my opinion. I'm not watching. I'm not. Then let me tell you why it's right.' So those two have been hit with that some. Like, what are you watching? How can you say that? 'Well, 'cause it's what I said six months ago and I'm sticking with it. That's my story.' But the good news for them is hopefully they're comfortable and they know we have your back."
They had each other's backs as well.
"We both had some low points last year and we kept each other going," Aaron Harrison said.
Andrew Harrison said their relationship was not only crucial to their eventual success last season, it strengthened and even changed their relationship with one another.
"It changed just because of the pressure and the microscope you're under when you go to Kentucky," Andrew Harrison said. "Now that you're used to it, you can relax and play."
Leaning on one another during the difficult times helped them amend the narrative of last season and their outlook going forward. They hung in long enough to see their season turn around in the postseason.
Both flourished during UK's NCAA Tournament run. Aaron Harrison obviously stole the headlines with the game-winning shots, but Andrew's turnaround was just as dramatic. Calipari instituted what he called a "tweak" in Andrew Harrison's game, and suddenly he became a different point guard in March.
"Most point guards, if you're a freshman point guard, you come in with two juniors, a senior and a freshman. He was trying to come in and play with all freshmen that didn't know any more than he did," Aaron Harrison said of his brother's responsibilities. "So it was really tough. I mean, it's not really fair, but everything's not fair."
It's worth noting that most of Calipari's previous point guards had to go through similar growing pains before finding their stride.
"I've always said the point guard for Coach Cal is the hardest to play," said walk-on Brian Long, who seen and watched a lot of solid point-guard play during his three-plus seasons at UK. "I think (Andrew Harrison) coming back for his sophomore year, I think he can take off."
Of course, Andrew Harrison wouldn't have been able to keep the development going without his brother's timely shots, the magnitude of which Aaron didn't come to grips with until several weeks after. Only now does he realize that he'll forever be a part of UK lore for what he did during that run in March.
"You sit back and you think about all that and you think about hitting the big shot like that in a big game, it's really unreal," Aaron Harrison said. "The shots are cool and all, but we were celebrating because we had another game to play. We didn't win the last one, so, I mean, it's not really the way we wanted to finish it. I mean, yeah, I still have some good memories about the shots that I made, but if we would've won our last game it wouldn't have even compared to that feeling."
Now, after the way the two played in the postseason and the way they built off the momentum during the Big Blue Bahamas tour, the Harrisons' stock is on the rise again.
In Nassau, they seemed to carry themselves in a different manner, as if this is their team. The slimmed-down twins looked more comfortable, more confident and better equipped to lead.
"I feel like I'm one of the leaders on this team and I can definitely lead this team in the right direction," Andrew Harrison said. "I have some experience and stuff like that, so I feel like the guys can listen to me. I know what they're going through and I see stuff on the court that I can help them out with."
Andrew Harrison's teammates notice a different vibe with him this year.
"It's crazy what one year can do for someone," sophomore Derek Willis said. "Definitely he's gotten better. He's more vocal. There's just so many little things that people don't notice that he does. When he's bringing the ball up it's not, 'I'm bringing the ball up.' It's running up, then stopping, then getting into our set. He's leading."
Ironically, given how they leaned on each other last year, Calipari would like to see a little bit of separation of the two going forward. The way he sees it, if they are going to make individual careers for themselves in the NBA, they will have to show NBA personnel that they can do it without one other's help.
"I told those two (for pickup games), 'Don't always play with each other. Play opposite,' " Coach Cal said. "You don't want to be labeled that you have to be on the same team. You've had guys like that before. It hurts them."
Calipari was just as surprised as everyone else when the Harrison twins decided to come back for their sophomore seasons - he learned of the news while he was sitting on a plane and getting ready to head out of town - but now that they're back, he's not ready to settle for the progress they made at the end of last year.
He believes they can and will get even better.
"They're still growing right now," Calipari said. "You still have to coach them and guide them. They, you know, they still have some habits that they flow back to when it gets crazy and nutty. But I'm just - they're great kids. They're both great kids. They're both, you know, in the best shape right now they've been in, but I'm telling them it's not good enough. They've got to get to another level."
Over the next two days, we'll post a transcript of John Calipari's
preseason media roundtable in three parts. To close it out, Coach Cal discusses Tyler Ulis, Trey Lyles, what he's looking for out of Willie Cauley-Stein and more. Has Derek improved his defense enough? "Yeah, but they're going at him. Who was he guarding yesterday? He and Marcus Lee I think were guarding each other yesterday. But he's, you know--the one thing I told him, all of them: You are responsible for you. You know I'm not throwing you under the bus. You know I'm going to love you. You know I'm going to develop you. You know we're going to help you be the best version of you. But you are responsible for you. Some of you guys need to come in here and shoot free throws. You've got the gun, you've got managers, make 200 a day. You are responsible for you. If you don't make free throws and you're shooting them at a 45-percent clip, you ain't playing the--you can't ever be what you want to be. And you control that. Get in here. So that's the kind of stuff. And I told them, I don't want to coach them until October. I'll look in right now. We got two hours a week, I'll use 25 minutes of it watching them play pick-up if I want. But short of that, I'm going to be gone for the next two week starting tomorrow. So, you know, I haven't--they were at my house and I had an individual meeting with them when we met at my house and that's it. I told them, 'I'll start coaching you in October.' What we did in October, I was with them enough. And so now--it hasn't changed. The Bahamas stuff helped us and scared every recruit. I mean, how many seniors are out there? (None) Say that again. (None) Really? So what do you think the other coach is saying? (What if they all come back?) Yeah. You say they're all leaving, but they all came back last year. You got guys that--and the way I talk, I'm not going to lie to them. I mean, stuff's hard here. It's no joke. This is a man's decision. So you'll have guys that, you know, 'I'm not going to do Kentucky.' It's good for us. It's like, I'd rather learn it now than have a kid come here and know he's not good enough because then we gotta deal with that."
John, what did you think of the story that we heard in the Bahamas about Tyler standing up to DeMarcus Cousins and insisting that he wanted the call DeMarcus insisting that he would not get the call? "I didn't see it, but I can imagine it happened with DeMarcus. But, you know, when I met with Isaiah Thomas to try to talk--I wanted him to tell me what I needed to do because I've never really coached a guy this small. I said, 'To be in the NBA at this size' - Isaiah's like a beast - 'did you lift?' 'No, this is my dad?' So some of that Tyler's going to have to do. He gained 10 pounds this summer. Well, now you've gotta gain another 10, 15 pounds. You're just gonna have to. But the other part, he said your advantage is in the backcourt in all cases. So you pick up, you make it bothersome for people anywhere you can. You figure out how you're going to have to personally play pick-and-roll. And he said from 15 feet and in it's your disadvantage. I said, 'Well how many of you guys get posted.' He said there is not a single post-up point guard in the NBA. So you don't have to worry about that. Think about that. In the old days, we would post up the point guard. We would say that point guard can't guard--no one does it anymore. And then he said, 'A guy's gonna come at you and score or do something and when he turns around he's gonna know you're still there, that you haven't moved.' Basically what he was saying is you're going to get in a situation like that with DeMarcus and he's gotta know you ain't budging. Ain't budging. So some of the stuff that I need to teach, he's already kind of done. But I told him when he came here: 'If you don't plan on being an NBA player, don't come here. I don't want to see it. You're not coming here. And don't let me hear all these people say, well, he finally got a four-year point guard.' I don't want to hear that crap either. So I think that's when he said, 'Well I'm coming then.' Because that he wants."
Is this Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas you're talking to or current Isaiah Thomas? "Current one that's tiny that I saw get 35 against John Wall that I said let's go to dinner because I need to talk to you."
What have you seen from Trey Lyles? I was talking to Willie earlier and Willie went on and on about Trey plays the game. "Yeah, it's just, we don't know yet. He's gotta come back and see where everything is. I'm watching him do the individual stuff where there's no contact and stuff and he's, you know, he's a tough kid. He's a skilled player. It'll be interesting. It makes us even bigger. But you need size but people gotta make shots. So what we were able to do now, again, Dominique made some, Derek made some. Now do you replace and can those make some or do others have to make more? Which is fine. You don't have to have five guys out there that all can make shots. It's nice if you do, but you can't have just one. I think teams will go back, they'll run into the lane like they did my first year and they're going to play a zone. They'll run back, they'll shoot it and how many guys will they send to the glass? Maybe one, and that guy better be close or he's running his butt back. And then they're going to play a 2-3 zone or whatever zone they play. That's what I would think." When you think back to the spring and all these decisions being made and they start trickling out, what are you thinking one by one when they decide to come back and how much that changed your initial plans? "We don't make plans until they're done, until that draft stuff's over. So we don't know what we're looking at. I don't waste time. I don't get any stress over it because I don't know. The one that was really fast was Willie. And after the game, that next morning, I went in and congratulated him on a great year. I said, 'Two years ago, no one knew who you were. Kansas didn't even recruit you.' Bill Self said, I saw him play and he had two points and I'm thinking why is Kentucky recruiting him? And two years later you're in the top-15 picks. I want to tell you I'm proud of you. I remember going to your high school the first time. Remember what I saw you doing?' 'You saw me playing kickball.' 'And the second time I saw you?' 'I don't know.' 'You were playing tennis. So I didn't even know if you liked basketball. Now you're this.' The next day, he came back and he said, 'Can I meet with you?' I said sure. He said, 'I want to come back.' I went, 'What? Why do you want to come back?' He told me and I said OK. Which then I thought Alex would come back because he and Alex were really close. I didn't think the twins would come back. The only reason Dakari explored--when I grabbed Dakari I said, 'Do you want me to look into your NBA stuff.' He said no. I said OK. I asked Marcus Lee. He said no. I said OK. But when I was getting feedback a couple of the teams threw Dakari's name in. And so I told him, 'You may want to reevaluate and get with your mom.' Kendrick Perkins has done pretty good in the NBA and he's still playing and he was the 29th pick in the draft. Now I think emotionally and every other way he wasn't ready, but if someone's going to draft you you gotta think about it. So that is how it played out. And then with the twins, I thought they would be encouraged to leave. That's just what I thought they would be. And then the more I kept hearing, I was hearing, you know what, I don't think they want to go. So they came in and we had a five-minute meeting. I told them, 'If you come back, it's going to be difficult. Here's what they're saying. That will be cured, but you're going to have to work. If you leave, I'll help you get in the first round. Do whatever I can to make that happen.' They came back, 'We're staying.' I was on a plane going somewhere and they called and said, 'We're staying.' I can't remember where I was going."
How much did it hurt the twins' development to arrive late last season? "Killed them. Killed them. And what it killed was their conditioning. So it took them until the middle of January to really--think about the play--couldn't run back, didn't want to keep playing so they'd do a body language thing. And then they'd look, is anybody watching? Because they were trying to stop. I mean, you play at the pace and all that stuff. It was a killer for them. And by the end of the year you saw and now you're starting to see again where their weight is down. But I told them, I want you even to be in better shape than you are. And then playing the way we're playing I think's going to help both of them. I think they'll both--when people see they're athletic. People are saying, 'Well, they're not real athletic.' Compared to what, me? What are you talking about? I mean, literally touching the top of the square and running so fast and then you'd say, well, why don't they run like that and jump like that all the time? It's hard. You gotta be in great shape to do that. Or you just go at your pace and you jump like you want. So that's the stuff that they're cracking. And they're both--I'm just telling you--they're great kids. They're not a bit, nothing--yes, sir. No, sir. Nothing."
What did Devin Booker do to make you more comfortable to put him on that first team in the Bahamas? "That was just based on trying to balance the teams. That's the only reason I did it. I can't remember, I could have had Derek Willis there and put him on the other group but then I thought that group would be too small. So you would have had (Booker, Hawkins and Ulis in the backcourt). Too small. That's what I did." What does Booker bring to this team? Is he just a shooter? "No, he's--no. He's a basketball player. He settled a little bit too much for jumpers. He didn't dominate as much as he could have but he was trying to feel it out. And we got tired at the end. The guys went with--it never ended. I'm glad we did it. It was the best thing we've done and guys learned about themselves. We learned about each other. We were able to do stuff. Think about me trying to two-platoon without having that. I mean, it would have been near impossible. And I tell you that because the clutter that they're going to hear, all the outside stuff that's basically trying to slow us down and slow down and convince them that you can't do it, it's hard now because they saw it. You know, and for someone to say 'you're getting screwed' and this and this, he's looking like, 'He's got my back. It's better for me. If I had to play 32 minutes you'd see all the stuff I can't do.' "
Speaking of which, Tyler Ulis vows that he can dunk a basketball. "No. There's no way. Not what I saw."
Is it safe to call Willie a free spirit and is there any challenge in that with him? What's that dynamic been like with him? "The only thing with Willie is he's gotta stay in our circle. Like, you can have the clutter in the circle up here and you can be down here or over here or over there, but you gotta be in the circle. You can't be outside the circle. You can never lead the circle from outside the circle. You gotta be in this and they all gotta know that you're in here with us. If you try to separate yourself as a player from the pack, you can never serve them, you can never lead them. They don't want to hear it. They think you're about yourself. So being a free spirit and how he is, he's a good kid. He's just gotta make sure he's inside this circle of what we're doing because if we're to be really special - what Jay (Bilas) talked about - someone has gotta be that player. I'll give you an example: We had a lot of good players last year. When we played Connecticut, who was the best player on the court? (Shabazz Napier) And that's why they won. When we played Kansas in that final game, who was the best player on the court? (Anthony Davis) My guy. And we won. I'm just telling--so now, on this team, when we play in that kind of game, are they going to have a player better than we have? And so who would that be? Can it be Willie? I mean, if you watched the other day you'd say, 'Holy jeez.' He's more comfortable, he's more confident, but he's gotta be in the circle. You can't be that guy from outside. You've gotta be in the trenches with them."
Is it safe to say that you've got more good players than you've had here but maybe not that one transcendent guy? "Well, but then here's the problem: When you start talking John Wall and Anthony Davis and even DeMarcus (Cousins), you're talking about--look at them. So now you're trying to compare these guys to those guys. It's not fair. What it is: Do you have someone that's better than everybody else in the country? I don't care if it's better than I've had in 2012. I just need to know he's better than anybody in 2014-15."
Do you? "I don't know because I can't even tell you names of other players right now who came back. I don't even know."
The clutter will say you can't develop that one player because there's only 20 minutes a game with the platoons. "Yeah, maybe. We'll see. You can say it and then you try to prove it right when you say it." You gave EJ Floreal a scholarship. Talk about that decision and him as a kid on your team. "It's always fun when you scholarship walk-ons. And I've done it here just about every year I've been here and how appreciative their family is and how appreciative the young man is. And EJ really did a good job, especially at the end of the year when I needed him to really guard our guards like they were going to be guarded in games. And he really, athletically--his skillset is not up to these guys, but his athleticism is. So he can go in and guard and rebound and do stuff. He just doesn't have the skillset that they have. And the other thing is they all like him. He's part of our team."
Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 11.0 points and 6.5 rebounds on UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
March Madness gets all the attention, but April is the most important month on the Kentucky basketball calendar.
For starters, UK has played into April in three of the last four seasons, twice advancing to the national championship game and once winning the whole thing. To cap it off, April is when underclassmen make their NBA Draft decisions.
The early-entry deadline has become a celebration of sorts at UK, a time for fans to look back on a successful season and wish the best to the players who made it happen as they move on to the next level.
This year, April went a little differently.
A week after the Wildcats came up a win shy of a title, Willie Cauley-Stein surprised everyone - including his coach - and announced he would return for his junior season. Four days later, Marcus Lee followed suit. The next week, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and the Harrison twins all decided they would come back, too.
That customary April celebration quickly turned into anticipation for the season to come. John Calipari, meanwhile, knew his job had changed.
"Did we plan on five guys leaving after our first year? No." Calipari said. "So all of a sudden it changed the whole direction of the program. Now all of a sudden we had guys come back that I thought would never come back. Well, now we've got to make it work."
Sharing in Coach Cal's surprise were Trey Lyles, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, the four members of UK's latest highly rated recruiting class.
"I was surprised at first because I definitely thought a lot of people were gone," Booker said in a preseason interview in August. "But I'm glad that they did come back and that was their decision ultimately and I'm here to support them and it's the best for us now. We are all competing and all getting better."
Just like UK fans, the four newcomers watched from a distance as six players elected to return and address some unfinished business.
"When all the guys decided to come back, I was happy because all that's going to do for us young guys is help us out because we've got experience now," Lyles said. "Them being able to talk to us about going to the championship and the fans and how Coach Cal is and how everything else is going to be, it's just really good experience and all it's going to do is just help us."
Past Calipari classes have borne the full weight of inevitable preseason expectations at UK. John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins knew they would have to shoulder a heavy load for the 2009-10 team to succeed. The same was true for the likes of Brandon Knight, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Julius Randle each of the next four seasons.
For this group, the pressure is a little less intense.
"They're probably able to play looser because they know it's not going to be on them. It's pretty good to know that--how about five freshmen, anybody returning had a great experience in the NIT at Robert Morris?" Calipari said, revisiting the challenge last year's freshmen faced. "Now all of a sudden you've got a team full of guys that played in the championship game and now you're coming back and watching and learning. If you can compete with them, you start building your own confidence. This guy, I can compete with this guy. It's a good thing."
Brian Long - who is watching a freshman class make the transition to college for the fourth time - agrees.
"I think it helps the team and the freshmen," Long said. "You don't have so much of a workload on your back coming in. You can kind - I don't want to say ease into it - but you can kind of feel into it and learn from the guys who came back and hopefully get a good feel right away and then just take off and understand your role better."
After what happened last season, that probably sounds good to Andrew Harrison. The point guard, though he didn't arrive on campus until August, had no choice but to step into a starting role on day one. When things didn't go according to plan, he was subject to scrutiny, unfair as that might have been.
A year later, he wants his freshman successors to have a different experience.
"I feel like they're playing pressure free," Andrew Harrison said. "I want to make sure they feel that way all the time. I feel like it's fun. They just fill in."
Filling in is something the four newcomers appear poised to do quite effectively.
With the six players who bypassed the NBA Draft and fellow returnees Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis, UK's roster had few holes on paper. The four freshmen, at least on paper, seem to address those still left.
Devin Booker. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Start with Booker, the 6-foot-6 guard from Grand Rapids, Mich.
James Young's departure took away the player who hit the most 3-pointers on a team that struggled at times to hit from the outside, at least prior to NCAA Tournament play. The Cats needed a shooter capable of stretching the floor and Booker, who averaged 30.9 points for Moss Point in Mississippi as a senior and once scored 54 points in a game as a sophomore, fits the bill.
Booker started all six games of the Big Blue Bahamas tour in August alongside the Harrison twins in the backcourt. He shot just 11 of 32 (34.4 percent) from the field - though he did hit 6 of 14 (42.9 percent) from 3-point range - but that's not much cause for concern for the consensus top-30 player.
"It wasn't a great look," Booker said. "I couldn't make a shot, but overall it was a great time. Shooters go through slumps, but I have confidence in my jumper so that is the least of my worries."
For all the talk about his shooting stroke, be careful not to cast Booker as a one-dimensional player. Booker - the son of Melvin Booker, former Big Eight Player of the Year at Missouri and longtime professional - is what Calipari often calls a "Basketball Benny" in spite of the way he played in the Bahamas.
"He's a basketball player," Calipari said. "He settled a little bit too much for jumpers. He didn't dominate as much as he could have but he was trying to feel it out."
Towns, on the other hand, had plenty of dominant moments.
The Piscataway, N.J., native and Gatorade High School Player of the Year averaged 11 points and 6.5 rebounds in the Bahamas, both second on the team. He flashed all facets of a diverse skillset that already has the 6-11 forward in the top five on most 2015 draft boards. He's not the same kind of athlete as Willie Cauley-Stein or the kind of imposing physical presence as Dakari Johnson, but Towns brings a new dimension with his length, touch around the basket and shooting stroke that extends past the 3-point line.
Now that Cauley-Stein has returned from injury, Towns is alternating between battling two very different big men in practice. Already, he's found how beneficial that competition can be.
"Come on, look who we have," Towns said. "Every day I know going in the gym in every practice we're going to get better. No matter what happens, we're going to get better and we're going to compete. And that's the best thing. It makes the games so much easier and it makes our skills so much better."
Tyler Ulis. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Ulis is in a similar situation.
The 5-9 point guard goes toe to toe every day with Andrew Harrison, a player with nine inches, more than 50 pounds and 40 games of college experience on him. It's a challenge he hasn't shied away from.
"I just try in practice to help him by pressuring the ball, picking him up full court being a pest so he can get used to playing with smaller guards," Ulis said.
Ulis' defensive pest abilities were on display in the Bahamas, where he had eight steals - including a game-clinching swipe and layup in one of the games - and many more forced turnovers. Seemingly the only thing that slowed him down were a couple hard screens his teammates failed to call out, but even those never kept him down for more than a moment.
"As a small guard, I have to get up under people," Ulis said, "force people to handle the ball, pressure them, make quick decisions and just try to use my size to my advantage."
As well as the Harrison twins played in the postseason last year, on-ball pressure was never their forte. Ulis also gives UK a talented second option at point guard after Coach Cal mostly used wing players like Aaron Harrison and Doron Lamb in spot backup duty in recent years.
While Ulis was busy establishing himself as a fan favorite in the Bahamas, Lyles was forced to sit as he recovered from a foot injury. Lyles was a consensus five-star prospect coming out of Indianapolis, but he is a relative unknown to fans because he missed the preseason tour.
When he does make his debut, Lyles won't look to make an impression with highlight-reel plays. Asked which player he models his game after, the 6-10 Lyles named none other than Tim Duncan.
"Just fundamentally sound," Lyles said, describing his game. "Play hard. Score. Rebound. Team-first player. I just do whatever the coach wants me to do."
Now that he is back from injury and practicing with the team, it remains to be seen what exactly will be asked of him. Lyles and Cauley-Stein's absence left 10 healthy scholarship players for Coach Cal's two platoons in the Bahamas, and the system worked well enough that the experiment seems likely to at least last into early in the regular season.
"It's never been done before where the players have benefited," Calipari said. "It's been done where the program's benefited and the coaches benefited, but it's never been done before where players benefited. That's the challenge that we'll have. I think that if you can get two groups that are balanced yet good enough, we can do it. We have some time. We have to see."
The four freshmen, facing a different kind of challenge than any Calipari recruiting class at Kentucky, are ready to fit in however they're asked.
"I think that we're just prepared to do whatever Coach Cal wants from us," Lyles said. "If he wants us to take over, then we gotta do it or we gotta step behind. If he wants us to fill in the blank spots, then that's what we'll do."
Willie Cauley-Stein jokes with fans on UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Physically, Willie Cauley-Stein was on the bench watching his teammates during their run to the national championship game. Mentally, emotionally, psychologically, he was nowhere in the building after injuring his left ankle against Louisville in the Sweet 16.
"The hardest thing was just staying with everybody, staying with my teammates, making sure that I'm still there, because honestly I didn't feel like I was there," Cauley-Stein said in preseason interview last month. "The best thing is like the stories after the game. Like, oh yeah, we did this and this. When you're not on the floor, you don't really experience that. You get to watch it. Everybody else watches it. But to be there and (not be able to play), that was the hardest part."
His teammates did everything they could to make him feel a part of the team. They included him in all the normal team activities and vowed to win a championship for him.
Cauley-Stein did everything he could to stay connected as well. He was at every practice, every team meeting and every meal as his teammates got closer and closer to the ultimate prize. He asked UK's sports video team to give him a camera so he could shoot footage from the sidelines. His footage from the bench with a Go Pro camera during the Michigan and Wisconsin games made for some of the most memorable moments of the run.
The sophomore forward even went as far as to make himself available for the extended media interviews during the postseason when he very well could have declined because of the injury. Cauley-Stein just wanted to feel like he was still a part of the team -- which he was.
But in so many ways, he felt like his bad break on the court had broken him away from the team.
"(My teammates) would come into the room or I would hobble into their room and mess around and stuff, but it was hard," Cauley-Stein said. "They were the most important games. It was hard to, like, feel - I would feel the same way if I was them. You got business to take care of; I wouldn't want to entertain me neither."
When his teammates fell one win short of a magical national championship, Cauley-Stein took the loss as hard as anyone. He felt like he could have made a difference in the outcome.
"We all forgot that we would've won (if he didn't get hurt)," John Calipari said. "The thing that we forgot (is), what would we have done with Willie playing? I mean, it would have been different. Even the endings of games wouldn't have been where they were. I mean, Willie was a dominant (force). Willie was a shot blocker, a guy that could change the game on both ends."
Willie Cauley-Stein. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
To be there and not be able to help, especially after what he went through in his first season at Kentucky when the Cats lost in the first round of the NIT, made the whole experience especially difficult.
"I think the circumstances were the reason why it was hard," Cauley-Stein said. "We were in the Final Four. ... That's what you play for. That's what you come to college for besides getting your degree. ... To have that taken away from you is really humbling."
After a long and frustrating summer that kept Cauley-Stein on the sidelines, he was finally cleared to resume full basketball activities in mid-September.
"It's been a long 20 weeks," Cauley-Stein said. "I hate waiting around. That's the worst part is just being patient about it. There's days where you feel like you can go out there and dunk and do windmills and stuff like that, and then there's days where like right after you feel like and you didn't even do anything and you step out of bed and be like, 'Why, what's different today than yesterday? I felt so good yesterday.' I'm really eager."
His eagerness was on display when Coach Cal watched him play a few weeks ago. Cauley-Stein, who has always shown signs of being a future lottery pick, reminded his head coach of his potential after missing the entire Bahamas trip.
"Willie's playing like he's a 3," Calipari said of the 7-footer. "Like, we throw it ahead, he's in the open court, crossing, throwing balls out, and I'm like, 'Holy jeez.' "
Undoubtedly, the injury in March played a part in Cauley-Stein's return for his junior season.
When Calipari called individual meetings with all of his players after the championship game to congratulate each of them on their year and discuss their future, the last thing he expected Cauley-Stein to tell him was that he was coming back.
"I want to tell you I'm proud of you," Calipari told Cauley-Stein in the meeting. "I remember going to your high school the first time. Remember what I saw you doing? 'You saw me playing kickball.' And the second time I saw you? 'I don't know.' You were playing tennis. So I didn't even know if you liked basketball. Now you're this."
As far as Coach Cal knew, it was time to get Cauley-Stein healed and ready for the NBA Draft. The next day Cauley-Stein came back and asked to meet with Calipari.
"I said sure," Calipari said. "He said, 'I want to come back.' I went, 'What? Why do you want to come back?' He told me and I said OK."
The reason was twofold.
For one, Cauley-Stein's injury and subsequent surgery was going to prevent him from working out for NBA teams before the draft. Cauley-Stein was unsure of how that would affect his draft stock.
"That's one reason why I came back is just the unknown," he said. "I feel like I'm way better than what I was going to get drafted."
Part of it was Cauley-Stein just isn't ready to grow up yet. He seems to genuinely enjoy being a kid and being in college.
"Especially now, being a junior, you're older, everybody knows who you are," Cauley-Stein said. "When I came in, nobody knew who I was, so it's cool like that. I love the fans around here. They're so fun. I enjoy messing around with them."
While some of his peers are quick to sign lucrative contracts and fast forward to the rest of their lives, Cauley-Stein would prefer to put time on hold to sit back and enjoy what he's got. Perhaps what was taken away from him during the tournament run gave him a different perspective on what it is he has.
"I just enjoy it," Cauley-Stein said. "You don't get them back. You don't get these years back. You've got to enjoy them while you've got them."
Ironically, given his reasoning to stay, he sounds so grown up.
When Cauley-Stein arrived on campus two years ago, he didn't know who he was or where he was going. A bit of a free spirit, Cauley-Stein tried to involve himself in anything and everything he could. His wide range of interests and style immediately made him a darling with the media, but some of those eclectic tastes, like his love for tattoos, his distinctive clothing and his ever-changing hairstyle, have also drawn the scrutiny of a faction of the fan base.
Fair or unfair, it has led some to wonder whether he is fully committed to basketball. That notion used to poke at Cauley-Stein, but as he's grown up, he's learned to deal with it and ignore it.
"I'm just more comfortable with being who I am ... and what it is to be here," Cauley-Stein said. "That's really all it is is being comfortable in your skin. That's how you try to get the best results of what you're trying to do."
During his freshman season, when UK struggled to meet expectations and a minority of fans lashed out at Cauley-Stein on social media, he got frustrated and temporarily deleted his Twitter account. Now Cauley-Stein either brushes it off or has fun with it.
"You don't really know how crazy your fan base is until you have a bad season here," Cauley-Stein said. "You have a bad season here, it's rough. You've still got thousands of people behind you, but there's the 100 that's killing you. Like, yo, why are fans killing you like this? But then they're not the real fans. They're just dudes that's mad that you're losing. And then you got 2,000 people on Twitter that's really hyping you up, that are really behind you no matter what you do.
"That's what's fascinating about the fans here. They're literally behind you 100 percent whether you're dying your hair blonde or you've got hundreds of tattoos or anything. Anything you do they're on your side and they're on your campaign, and that's what I love about them."
Calipari, who, remember, recruited Cauley-Stein when he was playing just about every sport other than basketball, would never discourage the junior forward to narrow his interests, but Cauley-Stein said that outside of a new hobby of his - designing, painting and customizing sneakers - he's dialed back some of his extracurricular activities to focus more on basketball.
Coach Cal is fine with whatever Cauley-Stein does so long as he stays "in the circle."
"You can never lead the circle from outside the circle," Calipari said. "You got to be in this and they all got to know that you're in here with us. If you try to separate yourself as a player from the pack, you can never serve them, you can never lead them. They don't want to hear it. They think you're about yourself. So being a free spirit and how he is, he's a good kid. He's just got to make sure he's inside this circle of what we're doing because if we're to be really special ... someone has got to be to that player."
Dakari Johnson averaged 7.2 points and 7.3 rebounds on UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Toying with potential lineups is a favorite offseason hobby of Kentucky fans.
Among the most popular combinations is always the big lineup, with UK's tallest players manning a hypothetical frontcourt that overwhelms opponents with length and strength.
It's almost always a better idea on paper than in practice, but depth at the forward and center positions dictates John Calipari won't have much of a choice whether to go to big looks on occasion this season.
At least two of UK's players standing 6-foot-11 or taller - Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Karl-Anthony Towns - will have to play together at times. They're too good not to.
For Cauley-Stein and Towns, this appears to be no problem. Cauley-Stein, after all, was a star wide receiver in high school and capable of guarding all five positions, while Towns has a diverse skillset suited for both inside the paint and out.
So, what about Johnson? Will the sophomore best known for his size and bruising play close to the basket be able do what he needs to in order to play in a twin-tower lineup?
Towns has your answer.
"Have you seen Dakari recently?" Towns said. "The man's running down the floor like a gazelle. I mean, he's done such a great job of losing weight and becoming a faster and more agile player."
That's the result of a lot of hard work.
When Johnson returned to campus for summer classes in June, one of his first meetings was with Rock Oliver, coordinator for men's basketball performance, and Monica Fowler, the team's registered dietician. Together, the three devised a plan that would allow Johnson to build on a promising freshman season that saw him average 5.2 points and 3.9 rebounds.
For the first few weeks, Oliver and Fowler sat with Johnson at meals and helped him identify healthy options. A quick study, Johnson didn't take long catching on, though he admits it wasn't always easy.
"In the beginning it's hard," Johnson said. "(Oliver) really stays on me. He stayed on me in the beginning of the summer until I got it and I got what I needed to do and what I needed to eat and what I needed to do right. Then he kind of laid off and I just kept on doing it after that."
Of course, Johnson's decision to bypass the NBA Draft had a lot to do with wanting to win the national championship he so narrowly missed out on in April. In returning, however, he also committed to taking his game to the next level. That's what kept him going through those inevitable tough moments.
"Just knowing if I did make the transformation what different type of player I would be," Johnson said. "I would be able to move up and down the court faster, get off my feet lighter. As I saw the results and as I saw the results in my play, I really liked it."
According to the official team roster, the 7-footer is down 10 pounds from a season ago, now coming in at 255. Calipari said the weight loss is more like 20 pounds. Either way, it didn't take watching him for more than one four-minute segment on UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour to realize the difference can't be measured in pounds.
Playing a little more than 20 minutes per game on the six-game tour, Johnson averaged 7.2 points and a team-best 7.3 rebounds. Turn those numbers into per-34 minute averages - a measure Calipari plans to use all season in his two-platoon system - and Johnson posted 11.9 points and 12.2 rebounds.
Due in part to his improved conditioning, he was a terror on the offensive glass, grabbing 16 rebounds there. He also showed few signs of wear during the grueling tour, posting his best rebounding performances in UK's final three games. A starter in all six games, Johnson was able to keep up as the Wildcats played at a faster pace in the platoon system.
"I'm pretty well fit for that situation because I can run up and down the court faster," Johnson said. "For the bigs, it's our job to run up and down the court. Then when you have guards that are so unselfish, as a big you want to run the court."
For all the talk about his offseason work, Johnson's transformation began well before June.
Through the first two months of his UK career, Johnson's playing time was inconsistent. Struggling to adjust to the college game, Johnson played double-digit minutes just once from the start of December through the middle of January.
Accustomed to success after an outstanding prep career that culminated in a national championship, Johnson responded to failure.
"In the beginning, my confidence was pretty low," Johnson said. "As the season went on, I just started doing some individual work and working a little bit harder and my confidence kept on growing as the season progressed."
The results speak for themselves.
Johnson asserted himself as a key contributor in Southeastern Conference play and into the postseason, splitting time with Cauley-Stein at the five position. When Cauley-Stein went down in the NCAA Tournament, Johnson stepped up. Without his 15 points and six rebounds against Louisville, UK's magical run likely would have ended in the Sweet 16.
Before the injury, Cauley-Stein and Johnson gave a sneak preview of the damage the twin-tower lineup can do, most notably in the SEC Tournament championship against No. 1 Florida. With 9:35 left and his team trailing 54-43, Coach Cal inserted Johnson for Julius Randle to play alongside Cauley-Stein. Over the next 3:51, they combined for three points, three rebounds, an assist and a block during a 10-3 spurt.
Imagine the possibilities with the new and improved Johnson, a healthy Cauley-Stein and Towns.
"We complement each other well," Johnson said. "We all bring different things to the table. That can be hard for the opposition because they can't just prepare for one type of big guy. They gotta prepare for how many we bring at them."