John Calipari coaches early in the 2011-12 season. (Photo by Jon Hale)
With a national championship, Final Four and Elite Eight finish in the last three seasons, it seems like little has gone wrong in John Calipari era at UK.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been bumps along the road.
Calipari likes to remind the media of his declarations throughout the 2010-11 season of how much he liked his team despite a 2-6 record in road SEC games. With games against Maryland and Duke to start the 2012-13 season, Calipari is preparing fans for the possibility of a similar start.
“We could be 0-2,” Calipari said Thursday at UK basketball media day.
Calipari joked that he told some friends at Wheelers Pharmacy that the season might start slowly and asked if they would still love him after a few losses.
“They said ‘Oh, man, come on. We’re going to love you. We’ll miss you, but we’re going to love you,’” Calipari recounted with a laugh.
Jokes aside, Calipari is serious about his newest team being a work in progress.
The Wildcats return just one contributor from the national championship team — sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer — and will attempt to integrate four freshmen and two transfers into the rotation.
“I wish I had the whole team coming back,” Calipari said. “I wish I had teams for three and four years, but that’s not the way it is.”
While Calipari is bracing for some early season struggles, he’s still not downplaying the potential of his team.
“I like what they’ll look like in March in my mind,” he said. “Right now, that’s the only thing I can live with. I have a vision of what they’re going to be in March, and that’s what I try to drive them to.”
That message has caught on with his players.
“I know that it could be bumpy at the beginning, but it could be good at the beginning as well,” said sophomore guard Ryan Harrow. “I just have to keep improving, even if it’s good. I know that I’m going to learn as the season goes along and I’m going to get better as the season goes along.”
“It doesn’t matter what it’s like at the beginning of the season,” said redshirt senior guard Julius Mays. “Obviously you want to win every game — you don’t want to lose any game — but the most important time is around that conference tournament and right around the NCAA Tournament. That’s when everything is important because you can’t lose then.”
The 2010-11 team lost eight games in the regular season and entered the NCAA Tournament as a four seed. That team lost six of its first seven conference road games.
Still, they finished two wins shy of a national championship.
Calipari is drawing on that experience this season.
“I’m not the most patient guy, but I’m going to try to be as patient as I can to drag them along,” he said.
Just because Calipari acknowledges each of the first two opponents on UK’s schedule present a difficult matchup doesn’t mean his players have any worries about their ability to compete.
“For real, we’re not worried about the other guys, seriously,” Harrow said. “We’re so confident in our team and how good all of us are and how much of a bond we have, that we feel like we’re going to do well.
“We know Coach Cal is going to get us to the point we need to be by the time we play Maryland that first game. We’re going to have a strategy for them. When we play Duke, we’re going to have a strategy for them. We’re just trying to practice hard and get better as these days go along.”
In advance of Friday’s Big Blue Madness, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale profiled each of the 12 members of the 2012-13 UK basketball team. You can read the full series here, as well as several other preview features.