Calipari’s Cats will once again look to be championship contenders


Kentucky freshman guard Tyrese Maxey puts up a shot during the exhibition game against Georgetown College on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 80-53. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Braden Ramsey

As the Kentucky Wildcats exited the Sprint Center floor following the overtime loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight in Kansas City, the feeling fans had was one of deja-vu.

Two years straight, Kentucky has squandered a golden opportunity to raise championship banner number nine, allowing less-talented teams to advance in their stead. Alongside a number of other returnees, junior Nick Richards has his eyes on that prize, which most Big Blue Nation members value more than any other.

“One of the goals when I came in was to win a national championship,” Richards said at media day. “And that’s one of my goals this season.”

Getting his band of top talents to mesh on the court has always been the biggest challenge for coach John Calipari, who enters his 11th season manning the bench for UK. That is no different this year, with Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney at the forefront of the nation’s second-best recruiting class. Paired with Bucknell transfer Nate Sestina, the reloading effort, on paper, was a successful one.

Will it be so on the court? History says yes, in time. Coach Cal’s technique is arduous, but he knows that through the growing pains, fruit will bear.

“It’s a process, and you got to stay in the moment and got to continue,” Calipari told reporters at media day. “We’re trying to help them develop individual habits, yet put a team together. That’s why this team doesn’t become what they become until January, February.”

Every team has its warts, and Calipari pointed out some he senses the talented cast could struggle with early on.

“Are we going to be physical enough?… if you get roughed up, can you still play, can you still perform?” Calipari said. “Do we have the physical, mental toughness?… how do we rebound and how tough are we physically?”

That question is already being put to the test after the Georgetown exhibition, where Kentucky was out-rebounded by the NAIA National Champions and Richards suffered an ankle injury. It is not expected to be a long-term issue, but it did have his status for the season opener in doubt.

Already facing a lack of depth with just nine healthy scholarship players heading into game one – Dontaie Allen is still recovering from ACL and shoulder injuries – the pressure is on the other veterans to get the freshmen up to speed.

That is something Ashton Hagans and others are trying their best to lead, through both actions and words.

“Being vocal, showing guys the right way,” Hagans said at media day. “You have to show [Calipari] that you’re out here fighting.”

“Talking through everything you do, even if you’re on the sidelines,” Nate Sestina added at media day. “Help the other guys… showing the difference between communicating and not communicating.”

The Cats were close the past two seasons in their pursuit of a national championship, but could not get over the hump. If they are able to put it together this time, fans can believe the third time is indeed a charm while a title banner is raised to cloud nine.