UK basketball head coach John Calipari is in the beginning stages of assimilating six new players onto the roster of a team looking to defend last year’s national championship.
Calipari met with the media in September to talk about early preparations. This is the first of a two-part series from that interview.
Question: How much did the additional allowed summer workouts help?
Calipari: There are times where the more information you get, the more confused you are. That’s where I am with this group. Now I have more questions, like how much can I play two big guys together? We’re going to have to figure out how much we play with those two together (Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein). With Alex (Poythress), the question is how close can we get his motor to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? Can we even get him in the same ballpark? We have a lot of questions. We are going to play fast. We are going to play dribble-drive. How we get in to the dribble-drive we have changed every single year I have been here.
Q: What has been the most pleasant surprise over the summer?
Calipari: Willie is the guy. First of all, I never saw him play in a high-school basketball game. I saw him play football a lot. I told him when we recruited him that he had no clue how good he could become. He’s taking on the sport for the first time where he is really focused on this sport. He has gained 20 to 25 pounds. His skill set is absolutely improved. He’s fast. He’s nimble. He gained ground on Nerlens because Nerlens wasn’t here (over the summer). Those eight weeks of conditions, weight training and 16 one-hour workouts put him on different level than Nerlens.
Q: How do you address the success of last year with this team?
Calipari: We’ve already talked about it. That thing is done. None of these guys were even a part of that. Does that mean we can be better than last year? Maybe. That would mean the team is really close. That would mean that the team really sacrifices. We don’t even know how we are going to play yet. I’m worried about this team and how good we can be. When we lost six games in our league (in 2011), I kept telling you guys we were going to be fine. What ended up happening, is if we played better against Connecticut on that day, we would have won the national title. There was no team out there that scared me. I don’t know enough about this year, but I do know the first two teams we’re playing (Maryland and Duke) are going to give us a problem. We’re talking about veteran teams that their whole summer has been thinking about Kentucky. We could go 0-2 to start off and still have a really good team.
Q: Who will be the Darius Miller of this team?
Calipari: I don’t even know if we will have that role. This team is going to be different. Could it be Julius (Mays) coming off the bench doing it? Yeah. We are going to have six or seven starters like we did a year ago. I don’t know who that will be yet.
Q: What was it about Julius Mays that made you want to add him to this program?
Calipari: Great kid who had performed at a high level, that could make baskets — especially jump shots, that wanted to be a part of this and understood what it meant. He knew what he was walking into.
Q: What did Ryan Harrow get out of the year practicing with the team?
Calipari: He got beat up. He played against a pit bull every day (Marquis Teague). I told Ryan I want him to be the best layup shooter in the SEC. I don’t need any cuteness. Get to the basket and shoot layups. That means you have to play through bumps and keep going. The good thing is you have Archie (Goodwin) who can play the position, too. We have flexibility. We can play two guards and three bigs. We can use Alex as a forward. I’m going to be honest, Alex is a three or a four. Now you put him at the four — do you know how quick he is? There is no four in our league that can guard him off the bounce, they will just have to back away and hope he isn’t making shots. We just have to play games, games like those first two. Those first two will be major learning experiences. We want to win every game we play, but we truly have to learn, experiment and mess around. These guys haven’t played together yet.
Q: Do you think you have a team where any of six players could be the leading scorer on a given day?
Calipari: Seven. Let me tell you what Willie Cauley-Stein’s job will be — outrun everybody down the floor, both ends. When we do drills, everything we do someone wins and someone loses. He finishes first in all the runs. He’s 7-foot tall and he’s finishing first, and running hard. Not just striding, he is flying. He can get two or three layups a half just by out-running their big.
Q: What is your vision for Nerlens Noel?
Calipari: He is not ever going to be Shaq, but he is really quick and fast. If a kid is slow going to the ball or reacting to the ball, he can’t play. If a kid is really quick going to the ball, then he has a chance to be special. Anthony (Davis) was really quick getting to balls. This kid (Noel) is the same way. He is the quickest on our team getting to balls and doing stuff like that. If he is on the baseline or high post area with hand-offs and rolls and stuff like that, he’ll finish with dunks. He is physically not in shape yet. He is behind. He just started here. I think he’ll be fine.
Q: Do you feel comfortable he will continue to be available (referring to NCAA inquiry)?
Calipari: They do this kind of review with a bunch of kids. The review — when you reclassify, there is a red flag. Some people are mad that you reclassify, that is another red flag. And they go through the process, but it is a review. We feel confident. We feel pretty good.