John Calipari embraces being a player's first college coach and he has yet another crop of talented freshmen eager to end Kentucky's national championship drought.
Going into his third season, Calipari also has some veterans returning to help ease the path back to a second straight Final Four for the Wildcats, ranked No. 2 in preseason poll."I've got a good team," said Calipari, whose squad opens the season Friday night at home against Marist.Terrence Jones pulled his name out of the NBA draft at the deadline, and now the sophomore forward is the Southeastern Conference's preseason player of the year. He's back with senior guard Darius Miller and sophomore guard Doron Lamb to go along with six freshmen led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague as the preseason favorites to win the SEC.It's Calipari's third straight No. 1 recruiting class and the group could mirror his first that included John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.Not that any of the Wildcats are talking about how much they want a national title, which would be Kentucky's first since 1998 and eighth overall."It hasn't been discussed, but it's what everyone wants," Jones said. "I know it's what everyone wants. We haven't talked about it as a team, but it's what everyone's goal is."The clock is running on Calipari as well.He won 35 games, the SEC title and had five Wildcats become first-round NBA draft picks, which he said may never be done again."Unless we do it here of course," Calipari said.Last season, he followed that up by winning the Wildcats' 27th SEC tournament title en route to their first Final Four since 1998. They lost in the national semifinal to Connecticut and finished 29-9.Not that Calipari sounds worried about how the season ends as long as he focuses on his players."This is kind of like my first year and a couple other years where I've had where you're in a short order trying to get a group of talented players together to play," he said."If you've ever coached this sport, you know, to get freshmen to, one, play without the basketball on offense, to make hard cuts that don't really matter for the play, to make the extra pass, to not worry about stats, and then defensively play off the ball, to do all of the things to help your team, it's just hard. I would like to get them to talk to one another on the court. That stuff's hard, and it takes time."Calipari and the Wildcats must come together quickly with the season opener before hosting Kansas and Penn State. North Carolina visits Dec. 3 with Commonwealth State rival Louisville at Rupp on Dec. 31. Then Kentucky dives into the SEC with the toughest road games Feb. 11 at Vanderbilt, at Mississippi State on Feb. 21 and Florida in the regular season finale March 4.Jones is his top returning scorer averaging 15.7 points per game. Lamb averaged 12.3 points, while Miller averaged 10.9 points. Jones said they have a lot of interchangeable players with this roster."We've got long players and players that remind me of myself when it comes to blocking shots and working hard," Jones said. "I just wanted to come back and win. I don't care about who I have to guard. I just like playing basketball. It doesn't matter what position I'm in."Calipari's bigger challenge will be adapting to a roster that doesn't have a true center. The 6-foot-10 Davis from Chicago may wind up filling that role, and Teague, the younger brother of the NBA Atlanta Hawks' Jeff Teague, is expected to start at point guard.Teague has been busy in the weight room, going from 170 pounds when he arrived on campus to 187."You have to go hard here," Teague said. "It has improved my game. I can take bumps a lot better when I'm going to the basket so it has helped me to be able to finish better."Calipari said having a freshman point guard could be torture early on with turnovers and bad shots, and the coach said he has to make sure to keep him out of foul trouble early because of his physical defense. He knows early games likely will feature 16 turnovers or more, which he expects to be closer to 11 or 12 by season's end."At the end of the year, this offense unleashes you as a point guard," Calipari said. "It just does."And it's all part of Calipari's grand plan.Marist is coming off a 6-27 season, though that was an improvement from 2009-10 when the Red Foxes went 1-29. However, they lost leading scorer Sam Prescott (11.4 points per game) along with Candon Rusin and Menelik Watson when the trio decided to transfer after last season. Rusin averaged 7.8 points and Watson 4.7.Returning are guard R.J. Hall, who averaged 9.2 points in 19 games before being lost for the second half of the season due to academic issues, along with swingman Dorvell Carter (7.7 ppg) and guard Devin Price (7.2). Sophomore swingman Jay Bowie averaged 6.4 points and 4.2 rebounds in 2010-11.Kentucky and Marist will be meeting for the first time.