Young team set to play tough schedule


UK head coach John Calipari directs the Wildcats during the second half of their 82-61 win over the University of South Carolina on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010 at Rupp Arena. Photo by Allie Garza

As UK gears up for a tough stretch of nonconference games with a young team, head coach John Calipari wonders how it all happened.

“To have the youngest team playing the toughest nonconference schedule, who is the dummy that did that?” Calipari asked.

The answer, of course, is himself.

And though he may not be entirely correct — UK is not the youngest, and doesn’t necessarily have the toughest schedule — the concept is correct. A squad loaded with freshmen will take on a bevy of traditionally good opponents. Sports Illustrated writer Luke Winn named UK’s nonconference schedule the second toughest in the nation.

UK plays North Carolina, Notre Dame, Louisville and Indiana for sure. The Maui Invitational adds Oklahoma to that list and either Washington or Virginia, with the possibility of meeting Connecticut or Michigan State in the final round of the tournament.

Still, playing teams that, at the very least, are perceived as good teams to start the season enables UK to gauge its strengths and weaknesses.

“This is one of those teams that I look at that needs to get beat up a little bit early,” Calipari said.

The players are, perhaps expectedly, averse to entertaining the notion of needing to lose.

“We don’t want to lose games, obviously,” Darius Miller said. “But we know we’re playing some tough teams.”

Early losses could have benefits that manifest themselves later in the year. Feeling the sting of defeat relatively soon can enable a team to build off that later, when a loss can end a season.

But if the losses do come early, and perhaps even often, for the newest version of the Cats?

“Sometimes the only that brings about change is when you have a catastrophe,” Calipari said. “Then all of a sudden, it’s like, oh my gosh, we better change.”

Calipari drew on last year’s early struggles with a freshmen-laden team. Even though the Cats won their first 19 games of the year, Calipari reminded everyone about being down against Miami (Ohio) and Sam Houston State.

“Last year … I said we’re going to start off slow,” Calipari said. “We’re going to lose some games early. We’re not going to be what you think, no high expectations.

“This year I really mean it.”

Of course, predicting the strength of schedule comes with a caveat: the other teams are playing games, and the expected strength of a team can often differ from the actual strength of the team. Case in point: North Carolina, who was billed as a top-15 team last year before eventually plummeting into the NIT.