Marcus Lee averaged seven points and seven rebounds in UK's two exhibition wins. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
John Calipari the competitor wants to jump out to a big early and win every game by double digits. John Calipari the realist knows that's not happening.
That's why he's saying things like this.
"We need adversity so bad," Calipari said. "We need to get hit in the mouth as soon as we can."
If you didn't know any better, you might think John Calipari is rooting against his own team.
"We need to be down 10, and let's figure out what we are," Calipari said.
On the eve of Kentucky's season opener, it's just a matter of time before he gets his wish.
UK opens its much-anticipated 2014-15 campaign at 8 p.m. on Friday night against Grand Canyon, a second-year Division-I program led by three-time NBA All Star Dan Majerle. The Wildcats are in the final hours of a unique offseason that's featured some surprise decisions to bypass the NBA Draft, a six-game Big Blue Bahamas tour and intrigue surrounding UK's platoon system.
That's all led to a No. 1 preseason ranking and unmatched hype (at least since last season), neither of which changes the task UK is facing.
"This thing is going to take time and it's going to be a process just like last year's team," Calipari said. "It can be all the hype we want. Won't matter. Gotta do it on the court."
Though there's no doubt doing it on the court in a game that counts is different, it's not as if this UK team is completely untested. There were the aforementioned Bahamas games and, perhaps even more notably, Kentucky's practices.
Talk of UK's roster featuring two teams that might each be ranked in the top 25 has been common all offseason, culminating in Calipari mentor and SMU head coach Larry Brown saying Thursday he believed the Cats' platoons would be No. 1 and No. 2 in the polls. That, like much of what's been said about Kentucky, is likely hyperbole, but the sentiment behind it is significant nonetheless.
With 12 talented players, every time UK gathers at the Joe Craft Center, it's a battle.
"Oh real competitive, you know always going against somebody at your position at all times," Poythress said. "Even in drills it's competitive."
One drill especially.
"We have a drill called the 'Perfect Stop,' " Lee said. "Once Coach Cal calls 'Perfect Stop,' it's probably the best part of practice because we're trying to kill each other. It's probably the most fun, but it's the most work we do during practice."
It's a five-on-five drill in the half-court that Alex Poythress called a "pride thing." The defense's task is simple, though far from easy: prevent the offense from scoring or getting into the lane for the entirety of the 35-second shot clock.
"It's probably the noisiest point of our practice because we're yelling, we're screaming, we're talking because you only have so much time to try to talk with your team to get things done," Lee said.
The drill has been prominently featured in the last few days of practice leading up to the opener, which Coach Cal called "ultra-competitive" after he ratcheted up the heat another couple notches.
"Our wins and losses matter here," Lee said. "We gotta run every time we lose, so it means a lot to win or lose no matter who you're playing right now."
Running is one thing, but it's a little different when permanent tallies go in the win-loss column. The Cats, however, are eager.
For most, season openers come with plenty of butterflies. At Kentucky, the chance to play meaningful games again actually may represent a reprieve.
At long last, talking season is over.
"It's definitely very relaxing knowing that we are finally here at the start of the season," Marcus Lee said. "It's something that we've all been looking forward to since the end of last season. So for it to finally be here is kind of a good feeling."
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics All stats through games on Nov. 9
Former Wildcat Brandon Knight is now his fourth NBA season and second with the Milwaukee Bucks. To this point in his career he has made a name for himself for his ability to score the ball from the point-guard position.
All jokes aside, Knight is off to a great start as the lead guard for a young Bucks team. He has scored in double digits in all seven games this season, but that comes as no surprise.
Knight is also leading all point guards with 45 total rebounds on the season, as well as averaging 7.3 assists per game.
In their last outing on Saturday the Bucks delivered the previously unbeaten Grizzlies their first loss of the season as Knight hit a game-winning and-one layup and converted on the free throw to give his team a 93-92 edge with just 1.1 seconds remaining on the clock.
Tayshaun Prince logged 27 minutes in the game for Memphis. The veteran registered eight points, two rebounds and two steals in the losing effort.
Anthony Davis, who is being pegged by experts as the future of the league, hit a game winner of his own in week two. Pelicans head coach Monty Williams drew up an isolation play for the All-Star forward in the closing seconds against the 2014 world champion San Antonio Spurs.
Davis caught the ball on the free-throw line, faced up, took two dribbles and used his length and quickness to get all the way to the rim with two dribbles. The basket gave him 27 points for the game and sealed a 100-99 win over the Spurs.
The former No. 1 pick is ranked fifth in the league in scoring (24.4), first in rebounding (12.8) and first in blocks (4.4), sparking early-season MVP conversations.
Another former Kentucky big man who entered in talks for postseason awards is Nerlens Noel, who was atop the Rookie Ladder after week one. Noel missed both games over the weekend as he went down with a sprained ankle Wednesday against Orlando.
The 76ers went 0-2 in his absence and currently hold a league worst 0-7 record on the season. But with Noel set to return to action on Thursday, and with reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams joining the team for the first time this season, it will be interesting to see if Philly can make any noise on their upcoming three-game road trip.
As for other Cats who are dealing with injuries, Jodie Meeks has been sidelined for the first seven games of the season for his struggling Pistons squad.
Detroit fully expects Meeks to be inserted into the starting lineup at the shooting guard position upon his return, but he's still about five weeks away from being cleared to play as he recovers from what the team diagnosed as a stress reaction in his back.
Also, Celtics rookie James Young has only seen action in one game in the opening weeks of the season. Young has been battling a hamstring injury dating back to the preseason, and he will miss the upcoming two-game road trip for Boston due to an undisclosed illness in his family.
Week two TV schedule
Tuesday: Orlando @ Toronto (Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson) 7:30 p.m. on NBA TV Wednesday: Houston (Terrence Jones) @ Minnesota 10:00 p.m. on ESPN Thursday: Chicago (Nazr Mohammad) @ Toronto 8:00 p.m. on TNT Sunday: Houston (Terrence Jones) @ Oklahoma City 7:00 p.m. on NBA TV
Aaron Harrison had a team-best 17 points in UK's exhibition win over Georgetown College on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics
With a pair of exhibitions out of the way, Kentucky has now improved to 53-4 all time in the preseason. The immediate reaction to that record is how does an elite program like Kentucky lose four tune-up games?
Well, it's not always smooth sailing to start the season. For this year's Wildcats, though, it has been nothing but an incredible display of offensive efficiency and domination on the defensive end of the floor.
In their most recent outing the Cats defeated Georgetown College 121-52, controlling every facet of the game. And after being routed by a margin of 69 points, it was all positive feedback from the opposition.
"I knew they were good coming into this game, but sitting out there watching it in front of their eyes, on the sideline, honestly I don't see how they're going to get beat this year," Georgetown head coach Chris Briggs said following Sunday night's game in Rupp Arena.
Sophomore shooting guard Aaron Harrison led the way in the scoring column with 17 points for the Cats, but that was just a minor detail in what was one of the more impressive box scores you will come across in college basketball this season.
Seven Kentucky players scored in double figures, although no player saw more than 19 minutes of action. The team compiled a field-goal percentage of .639 and shot 44 percent from long range, good for 1.46 points per possession.
"On a good shooting night like tonight it's really tough to guard us because we can spread the floor and we have good drivers," Aaron Harrison said. "And obviously we have great big men and great size."
The guard play for Kentucky is sure to be much improved from a season ago with the Harrison twins in command in their second year, while also adding sharp-shooting freshman Devin Booker and tenacious point guard Tyler Ulis to the mix in the second platoon. But what has this team unanimously ranked No. 1 in college basketball preseason polls is the unbelievable depth and size in the frontcourt.
The bigs for Kentucky were dominant in their second and final exhibition. They were relentless on the glass, outrebounding the Tigers 54-26 while tallying 23 second-chance points.
The Cats threw down 19 dunks, which made up over half of the team's 64 points in the paint. Kentucky's seven frontcourt players shot a combined 32 of 43, adding up to an amazing 74.4 percent from the field.
Fourteen different Wildcats recorded at least one assist in the game. It's rare to even see 14 different players check into a basketball game.
Many of the baskets came in the transition game as a result of big guys making the extra effort to run the floor, a point of emphasis in the early stages of the season.
"If that big guy runs, you run right there and try to throw him the ball to reward our bigs for running," UK head coach John Calipari said. "Think about it, every time we're on there, it's either Dakari flying, Willie flying, Karl(-Anthony Towns) flying, Marcus Lee flying. Your bigs better fly. And you better be playing more than two bigs. You better be playing four or five bigs."
Unfortunately for the cross-town foe, Georgetown lacked the size and depth necessary to match up. And with seven interchangeable big men for Kentucky, it was clear how worn down the Tigers were in the final eight minutes of the second half when the game turned into a highlight reel.
There are few teams around the country who even have the manpower to avoid this problem if they face the Cats this season, which begins for UK on Friday at 8 p.m. against Grand Canyon.
With all the positives that can be pulled from Kentucky's first two appearances against other competition it is easy to rave about all the possibilities of the season ahead. But Calipari asks the Big Blue Nation to take a step back and brace themselves for a few inevitable hardships along the way, in spite of what Briggs had to say.
"We're going to hit some bumps in the road," Calipari said. "There's going to be games that playing this many is going to be hard. You know why? Because I'm expecting 10 guys to play well every night out and that's not going to happen."
Willie Cauley-Stein had 12 points, six rebounds and three blocks in UK's win over Georgetown College on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
To say Chris Briggs showered Kentucky with praise would be an understatement. It was more like a downpour.
The Wildcats had just dismantled Briggs' Georgetown College team in an exhibition, and he couldn't help but express his wonder.
"We had the same problems that the rest of the country probably will have the rest of this year," Briggs said. "Those guys are unreal. I told the guys in the locker room, they could have beaten some NBA teams tonight, there's no question in my mind."
There were no NBA teams in Rupp Arena on Sunday night, so the Cats had to settle for a 121-52 win over perennial NAIA power Georgetown. UK was every bit as dominant as it was in its first exhibition win over Pikeville, with Aaron Harrison leading seven double-figure scorers with 17 points. Harrison shot 5 of 7 from 3-point range and the Cats 12 of 27 as a team.
The Cats shot 46 of 72 (63.9 percent) from the field and had 32 assists, rendering Georgetown's short-lived 2-0 lead to start game a distant memory. UK's defense stifled the Tigers to the tune of 27.9-percent shooting, nine blocks and nine steals.
"We played really well," Harrison said. "We came out a little slow, but we picked it up and got going. It was fun."
The 21,490 fans in attendance surely agreed, what with the dunk show Willie Cauley-Stein highlighted with a hand-behind-the-head pose for two of his 12 points. Of course, Cauley-Stein channeling Hall of Famer Karl Malone wasn't the last time the NBA would be invoked.
Briggs, even though he felt a little guilty adding fuel to UK's hype machine, even went on to say he had a hard time imagining how the Cats will lose this season. A season removed from 40-0 expectations defining his team before an NCAA Tournament run, John Calipari made sure to distance himself from the talk.
"Coach, did you do that to me?" Calipari said. "So he also said we're going to have 40 wins and win by 25, right? No, this will be a process. We're going to hit some bumps in the road."
Though the ride was smooth on Sunday, the Cats don't need to be told the regular season - which begins on Friday against Grand Canyon - will bring challenges.
"We know that the opponent is a little small and at some point we're going to play against bigger people and bigger size," Dakari Johnson said. "But we do have 12 people that can play at that high level, so I think it's for our benefit."
Few players are benefiting from UK's two-platoon system more than Johnson.
The sophomore had 12 points and 10 rebounds, needing just 17 minutes to tally a double-double. Even though he's in the best shape of his life after adopting a new training regimen and diet in the offseason and his playing time is limited to four-minute spurts, Johnson is still finding ways to tire himself out on the court.
That's the idea.
"He was exhausted in the last time out," Calipari said. "He grabbed his shorts was breathing so hard. I told the guys, 'Look at him, that's what you all should feel like walking off this court.' A friend of mine watched our game last week and said, 'As soon as your guys realize they can play even harder than they're playing it becomes scary. It becomes scary.' "
The platoon system might mean the Cats won't put up the same gaudy individual numbers they otherwise would, but they're having no trouble adjusting to this point.
"Not anybody in the country has as many guys that deserve to play and can play at a high level like us," Johnson said. "It's just--once the other team gets fatigued, it's tough. And once we keep on getting fresh and keep on going in, we can have a lot of fun with it."
They already seem to be having plenty of fun, evidenced by the fact that they spend a bulk of their time on the bench not sitting at all.
"The team, we're just together," Johnson said. "We like to have fun and we just cheer on our teammates. If they make a great play, we're going to let them know that they made a great play. It just feels like--on the court and off the court, we're more together."
That togetherness, Coach Cal says, is why he's comfortable trying something few coaches ever have in using the platoon system.
"I just went on TV and I said the only reason this will work is because the players are allowing it to work," Calipari said. "And that means you've got kids with high character. You have kids who care about one another, that trust each other. Basically trust what we're doing here that we got their back."
That trust will be tested throughout the season, as well as the system Coach Cal is using. He said on Sunday he would evaluate the platoons after 10 or 12 games, stating plainly that the approach is not set in stone.
"They're going to be a game or two we're going to lose and you're going to look at me and say what, and I'm going to say it's about these kids, I'll figure it out, I'm not doing it yet," Calipari said. "And this is going to play out. It may be a tweak. It may be more than that. We'll figure it out."
The players know they have work ahead of them too, but that doesn't mean they're not confident.
"We're just a really good team and a lot of talent," Harrison said. "I think if we continue to work together and play together, I think we can do really well this year."