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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Record-setting basketball class willing to face competition for chance to win NCAA title

The UK freshman class includes an unprecedented six McDonald's All-Americans. (Photos by Jon Hale)

The UK freshman class includes an unprecedented six McDonald’s All-Americans.
(Photos by Jon Hale)

 

John Calipari has never been shy about saying the UK men’s basketball program is not for every player.

 

In Calipari’s four years as UK’s head coach, highly touted prospects have had to accept smaller roles and fewer shots per game than they might at another program with fewer future NBA draft picks. That sacrifice comes on top of adjusting to life in the fishbowl that is the “Big Blue Nation.”

 

Calipari has featured multiple McDonald’s All-Americans in each of his first four UK freshman classes, but his 2013-14 team will bring that plethora of young talent to a new level with a record six McDonald’s All-Americans and eight total scholarship freshmen.

 

So why did those players come to UK, where they knew they would face fierce competition for playing time and might not receive as much time with the ball when they were on the floor as they would elsewhere?

 

“This group, they want to win, and they know they need each other and they know it’s going to take each of them,” Calipari said.

 

In a series of one-on-one preseason interviews with KyForward, the UK freshmen supported that assessment.

 

“I just want to win,” said freshman forward Julius Randle, the highest-rated recruit in the class. “My goal is to win a national championship. I don’t care about that stuff. I think people know how I play, know what I can do, but I just want to win.”

 

“Coming here, I’ll be playing with a bunch of five-stars, a bunch of players that have been here for awhile,” freshman center Dakari Johnson said. “So I feel like this was the best place for me to have a chance, a real shot at winning a national championship.”

 

“The motivation is to win,” freshman point guard Andrew Harrison said. “I feel like I had the best chance to do that here.”

 

In addition to the chance to win a championship in what might be the only season in college for some, the UK freshmen also spoke of the improvements they expect to make in a year of going against some of the best players in the country in practice.

 

“It gave me a reason to push myself,” freshman forward Marcus Lee said. “I didn’t want to go to a school where I get to coast through practice and still be the most dominant player there, and there was no one really ahead of me. I could probably do whatever I want. Here, I have to battle for everything I want. I have to battle for a starting spot, I have to battle for my minutes. It makes me better in everything.”

 

“(In high school) I felt like I was just always scoring by myself, getting double-teamed and stuff like that,” freshman guard James Young said. “I didn’t want that, so why not come to where there is a lot of guys play for competition? I love competition. I can’t wait.”

 

Most of the freshmen got a jump start on bonding as a team during summer classes before the start of their first fall semester at UK.

 

Young and the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, were not finished with their academic work from high school in time for the start of UK’s summer sessions and did not arrive in Lexington full-time until August.

 

Having a pre-existing relationship with many of the freshmen, especially those that played at 2013 McDonald’s and Jordan Brand All-American games, has helped ease the transition for the late-arriving freshmen trio.

 

“I guess we already knew each other’s games,” freshman guard Aaron Harrison said. “I watched a lot of the kids that stayed here from last year, and then the other guys, we’ve been playing against each other since we were 10 and 11 years old.”

 

The six McDonald’s All-Americans in the class—Randle, Johnson, Lee, Young and the Harrison twins—may not be at UK for longer than a season or two, but the class also includes a trio of Kentucky high school graduates—forward Derek Willis, point guard Dominique Hawkins and walk-on guard E. J. Floreal—who agreed to come to UK knowing full well what competition awaited them.

 

Even facing the real possibility that significant playing time may be a couple of seasons away, the trio sound eager to test their skills against their more highly touted classmates.

 

“I don’t know what kind of a person I would be if I shied away from a challenge,” Willis said. “That wouldn’t define me as a man. It’s just something I’m going to have to go through and just see how I can learn from these guys.”

 

“My role is whatever Coach Cal tells me when the time is needed,” Hawkins said. “He’s going to tell me during practice sometimes. Whatever my role is, I’m going to try to do a great job of playing it up.”

 

Many of the freshmen spoke of the chance to “do something special” in their first year together. Calipari thinks if all goes to plan, there is a good chance many, if not most, of his freshmen leave for the NBA after one season.

 

Still, none of the freshmen are operating under any illusions about being the team’s only go-to player in order to be better showcased for professional scouts.

 

“On a lot of recruiting, a lot of coaches were like, ‘All right, you will be that guy. You’ll be the guy to score 50, and you’ll be the most dominant player ever,’ ” Lee said. “And here they were like, ‘OK, well you’re going to play against the best people in practice, win games, and your life will suck because you have to go against Dakari and Willie (Cauley-Stein).’

 

“I was like, ‘Ah, man, that sounds great.’ ”

 

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In the weeks leading up to the 2013 UK men’s basketball media day, KyForward is previewing the season with a series of stories about the Cats resulting from interviews with players and head coach John Calipari from September. As they publish, you can see all the stories in the series here.

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