Where’s the hype for Kentucky?

Where’s the hype for Kentucky?

John Calipari tried to warn everyone in October.

“We will be ugly early,” Calipari said at Kentucky media day. “That’s just how it’s going to be.”

With Calipari, it’s always hard to tell why he’s downplaying expectations. He could be doing it to take some of the pressure off his team, to remove some of the spotlight even if he knows he has a really good group. As eye-rollingly grumpy as he can sound, Calipari knows how to manage hype better than any coach in the country.

Something was different with Calipari this preseason, though. He was being sincere. He had concerns — and after two games, it’s clear he knew what he was talking about.

Kentucky had to overcome a nine-point halftime deficit in the season opener against Utah Valley and then escaped with a four-point win over Vermont on Sunday. With a short turnaround before Tuesday’s game against No. 4 Kansas at the Champions Classic (coverage begins 7 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN App), the version of Kentucky we saw over the weekend is the one we’re likely to see against the Jayhawks.

On paper, Calipari is in an enviable position.

Of the 11 scholarship players on Kentucky’s roster, eight were rated as five-star prospects coming out of high school. Two others were ranked in the ESPN 100. The 11th dominated for New Zealand at the FIBA U19 World Cup in July.

But Calipari’s preseason comparison for this team wasn’t to one of his title-winning or Final Four teams. It was not to last year’s 32-win group.

“It’s like knowing you’re having a root canal every day,” the Kentucky head coach told ESPN in October. “You walk in, and you know it’s coming. And someone will say, ‘Well, you’ve done this before.’ Yeah, I’ve had root canal before, and it’s very painful.”

Although that might seem like a harsh parallel for what appears to be a talented college basketball team, this is a different group than any Calipari has had at Kentucky. Yes, he always has a team filled with five-star players and future NBA draft picks. But this is by far Calipari’s youngest group. There are eight freshmen and three sophomores on the roster. The most experienced player is Wenyen Gabriel, who averaged 4.6 points and 4.8 rebounds last season and played 26 minutes total in the four NCAA tournament games. The other two returnees are Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard. Killeya-Jones didn’t play a single minute after Jan. 21 last season, and Wynyard’s final appearance of the season was on Feb. 7.

Normally, a Calipari-coached team balances youth with a couple of key veterans. Derek Willis provided some leadership last season, and Dominique Hawkins had been in the program for four years.

Kentucky’s best teams have been perfect examples of Calipari’s ideal roster construction. The 38-1 group in 2014-15 had experienced sophomores Andrew and Aaron Harrison on the perimeter and junior Willie Cauley-Stein up front. The national championship-winning 2012 team had Darius Miller bringing experience. In 2010, Patrick Patterson balanced out John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins.

“I’m dealing with a team that’s a year out of high school,” Calipari said last month at SEC media day. “If you come and watch us practice, you’re gonna say, ‘Those are high school things he’s doing.’ But we gotta start with what they don’t know and build from there.”

Kentucky’s players don’t necessarily see the lack of experience as a huge negative. Most of the guys know each other from high school and AAU and are close off the court. More importantly, there aren’t any chemistry issues.

“It’s better as a team when you actually like who you’re playing with. It translates on the court,” freshman Jarred Vanderbilt said in October. “Nothing was already established. It’s not like we have to come in and join something, because nothing is established yet. Being a part of something that’s first is always better.”

Gabriel and Hamidou Diallo, who enrolled at Kentucky in January but sat out the second semester, took on increased leadership roles in the preseason.

“The leadership can come from anybody,” Calipari said. “Doesn’t have to come from veterans. I’ve had it different ways here. Sometimes the guys they want to follow is a guy that’s really getting it done on the court or a guy that puts himself out for his teammates. Again, that develops over time.”

Kentucky is also in wait-and-see mode in terms of who will step forward as the star of the team. Again, this is different than Kentucky teams of recent memory. The Wildcats have had at least one lottery pick in every NBA draft since Calipari took over in Lexington and a total of 17 lottery picks in eight years.

In Jonathan Givony’s latest mock draft on ESPN, released in early October, Kentucky doesn’t have a projected lottery pick. Diallo slots in at No. 17 and Nick Richards is at No. 22.

In the opener, Diallo led the way with 18 points, while freshmen Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Richards finished with double figures. Against Vermont, it was P.J. Washington who paced the team in scoring with 17 points, with Diallo going for 16 and Quade Green finishing with 15.

Knox was the highest-ranked freshman coming into the program, at 10th in the ESPN 100 for the 2017 class. But he had his ups and downs in preseason practice. At Kentucky’s media day in early October, Calipari pointed to Knox having his best practice of the season. But just a week later at SEC media day, Calipari expressed the need for more consistency and aggressiveness.

Calipari is also still figuring out his point guard situation. Gilgeous-Alexander played 36 minutes in the opener, with Green scoring four points off the bench. Against Vermont, it was flipped: Green played 25 minutes and Gilgeous-Alexander scored four points off the bench.

There are kinks to be worked out for every player, despite the accolades coming out of high school.

“For all these kids, it’s a process,” Calipari said in October. “As I watch them individually, it’s, ‘OK, where are they now?’ [and] build from there. And when they’re making strides, be really happy and don’t worry, ‘Man, I think this kid should be way better.’ It doesn’t matter. This is where he is.”

Calipari is learning to be patient with this team — for now.

“I don’t have my hands on the panic button yet,” he said a few weeks into practice. “I have both feet on the panic button, but I have no hands yet.”

This isn’t going to be the usual Kentucky experience. There isn’t a crop of three or four lottery picks to fall back on. There aren’t veterans to rely on during this early part of the season, when the freshmen are still getting their feet wet. The defense — a staple of Calipari-coached teams, regardless of experience — is still a work in progress, with Calipari mixing in zone this past weekend. Moreover, he hasn’t really been able to tap into the interchangeable and positionless ability of the team yet because of the growing pains.

“What does the best version of this team look like?” Calipari asked at Kentucky’s media day. “I’m just being honest: I don’t know yet.”

After two games, he still doesn’t.

By March, Calipari hopes that playing against Kentucky might be a little more painful — like a trip to the dentist, perhaps.

Source: http://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/21400440/hype-year-kentucky-wildcats

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