Kentucky freshmen ready to shine

The hype is already at full blast, but John Calipari is confident in his young Wildcats

Originally Published: October 18, 2013
By Jason King | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Shortly after 11 p.m. Monday, as he wrapped up some work in his office above the Kentucky practice gym, John Calipari was distracted by the sound of a basketball pounding against the hardwood.

When the coach looked out his window and down onto the court, he saw freshman forward Julius Randle putting himself through conditioning and shooting drills. Randle repeated the routine the following morning before participating in the Wildcats' team practice that afternoon -- his third workout in 24 hours.

"He was cramping at the end of practice," Calipari said. "No kidding. '[I thought] kid, stay off the court a little bit.'

"He's a very driven young man."

Randle and his teammates don't have any choice but to put in extra work.

The Wildcats, after all, are dealing with unprecedented expectations as they prepare to open their season with Big Blue Madness tonight at Rupp Arena. Seven months removed from last season's loss to Robert Morris in the NIT, Kentucky has been tabbed as the nation's No. 1-ranked team by virtually every preseason publication thanks to the addition of six McDonald's All-Americans.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lee, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsKentucky's freshmen are a talented bunch. Now, they step into the spotlight.

UK's recruiting class is already being compared to Michigan's "Fab Five," and as many as five Kentucky players have been projected as first-rounders in the 2014 NBA draft. That includes Randle and James Young, both of whom have a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick, according to Calipari.

"I think on this team we'll have seven guys get 25 [points] or more in at least one game, maybe two," Calipari said. "They have that much ability."

Such comments only fuel the hype surrounding this season's squad -- and so does talk of a 40-0 season. It's a feat no men's team has accomplished since 1975-76, when Indiana went 32-0 under Bob Knight. Calipari, though, doesn't shy away from the topic.

"I've said, 'Before I retire, I'd like to coach an undefeated team,'" Calipari said. "I know people are like, 'It's impossible. You can't do it. It'll never be done. That's nuts. Not in this day and age.'

"I've heard it all and I'll still stick with it. Before I retire, I'd like to coach an undefeated basketball team. I think it'd be neat."

Calipari has come close before. His 2007-08 Memphis squad went 38-2 and lost to Kansas in the NCAA championship. Calipari also went 38-2 en route to his first national title at Kentucky in 2012.

That squad featured more veteran leadership, with sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb and senior Darius Miller. And the top six players from that team were drafted that summer. Still, when it comes to overall talent, no Calipari team can match the one he'll put on the court this season.

"John's team this year is probably going to be the best team I've ever coached against," Texas A&M's Billy Kennedy said, and Wildcats fans can only hope it's true.

If there's anything tempering the excitement, it's last season's failure to make the NCAA tournament with a team that featured four freshmen among its top seven players. Losing standout center Nerlens Noel to a January knee injury certainly didn't help, but it was clear all along that the toughness and chemistry that have come to define Calipari's teams simply wasn't there.

Calipari said one of the issues was a roster that featured just eight scholarship players -- and only seven after Noel went down. Even when guys were performing poorly, he was forced to leave them on the court.

[+] EnlargeCalipari
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsJohn Calipari has assembled another crop of talented freshmen. How good is this class? We're about to find out.

"It was a great lesson to me on why you need a full complement of players," Calipari said. "They are not machines. These are kids. Sometimes they need to be out of the game. Not for punishment. They just need to be off the court so they can get their minds set and regroup and play better."

Calipari is confident his latest group will jell.

He said 75 percent of almost every practice thus far has been spent scrimmaging so his players will grow comfortable with one another on the offensive end, where he plans to capitalize on the Wildcats' natural ability by returning to the dribble-drive attack he mostly abandoned last season.

"The dribble-drive isn't running plays," Calipari said. "It's about playing basketball. One of the things I'm saying is, 'Fail fast,' which means: 'Play uncomfortable. Go harder so we can correct you so you can feel what works and what doesn't work now. Stuff that you did in high school against that 6-foot forward isn't going to work here.'"

While all players have shown flashes of brilliance, the biggest standout thus far has been Young, an aggressive 6-foot-6 wing who can score from anywhere.

Calipari said Young has made significant strides the past few weeks with his toughness going to the basket. Young made so many shots during Thursday's workout that assistant Orlando Antigua joked he was in "video game" mode. Calipari said a handful of the approximately 40 scouts who have attended UK's practices suggested Young may be the best player in the country.

Also in that conversation is Randle, a 6-9, 250-pound bruiser who can score at will in the paint. Calipari, though, also plans to utilize him on the perimeter, where he can handle the ball and score from 3-point range, which is something he'll be asked to do in the NBA.

"If I wanted to just win college games and that's all I was about, I'd be playing him under the basket," Calipari said. "But I'm trying to prepare him for where he's going to be [after college]."

Andrew Harrison should give Kentucky the standout point guard it's lacked the past two seasons, while his twin, Aaron, is expected to excel at shooting guard. Center Willie Cauley-Stein and small forward Alex Poythress, both sophomores, have made significant strides since last season. Both are considered first-rounders.

"We're ready to show the world what we've got," Poythress said.

Calipari said he isn't worried that Kentucky's abundance of talent will result in chemistry issues. The situation is something he's dealt with every year at Kentucky.

"One [scout] left the gym and said, 'How are you going to get these eight or nine guys to share the ball?'" Calipari said. "I was like, 'I don't know, but we always end up doing it.'

"These guys know each other, they like each other, they wanted to play together. They wanted to play with other good players. If you don't want to do that -- if you want to be 'the guy' and get 20 shots a game -- this isn't the place for you."

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