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Big Blue Madness may represent the start of the basketball season for most fans as UK’s first official practice, but UK head coach John Calipari has already gotten a head start working with his team this season.
A new NCAA rule allowed coaches to work with their teams for two hours each week during an eight-week period this summer.
One might expect those early workouts to have given Calipari more of an idea of the type of team he will play this fall, but he said that has not been the case.
“There are times when the more information you get, the more confused you are,” Calipari said during a preseason roundtable interview with reporters in September. “That’s kind of where I am with this group. Like, what I would have thought, some of the questions I had, now I have more questions.”
Calipari has no trouble rattling off several questions as examples.
Can he play freshmen centers Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel at the same time? Can freshman Archie Goodwin play extensive minutes at point guard? Is freshman Alex Poythress ready to be this team’s version of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with his motor running at 100 percent at all time?
For all his questions, Calipari acknowledged he figured out a few things about his team during summer workouts.
“We’re going to play fast,” he said. “We’re going to play the dribble-drive. How we get into the dribble-drive, we’ve changed every single year I’ve been here. We’re going to play defense.”
Just four scholarship players return from the 2012 championship team for UK. Only one of those four players saw significant minutes last season.
Still, those returners can notice a difference in the progression of this team after getting to work with Calipari this summer.
“We’re a little further ahead just because we weren’t able to practice last year,” said sophomore forward Kyle Wiljter. “We were able to mess around in the gym, but no serious practices. No we know what to expect from out practices, and we have a better feel for each other’s games.”
“We’ve already progressed more than we did last year in the summer because we couldn’t do anything with the coaches,” said junior guard Jarrod Polson. “We already know a little bit about the dribble-drive and spacing more than anything.”
Freshman center Nerlens Noel did not work with the team this summer as he finished up some academic work after reclassifying from the high school class of 2013 to 2012, but the other three UK freshmen were able to catch an early glimpse of the offense and working with Calipari.
“Those weeks helped us a lot,” Goodwin said. “We got accustomed to some things like running and strength conditioning. That helped us out a lot. I think it’s going to give us the upper hand when the season starts.”
While the freshmen may have received their first glimpse at the UK offense and practice routine, they did not get a real look at Calipari’s coaching style according to several veterans.
“I just don’t think those guys have really seen Coach Cal yet,” said senior guard Twany Beckham. “He hasn’t really coached them yet.”
“Cal was really, real more laid back this summer than I’ve ever seen him, especially in games,” Goodwin said. “He’s still coaching, but he hasn’t been really on us like I’m pretty sure he’s going to be on us when the season starts.”
They aren’t expecting Calipari’s newfound mellowness to last.
“I think that’s just because it’s summer time,” said sophomore guard Ryan Harrow, who sat out last season as a transfer. “Getting closer to the season, I think he’ll be the same-old Cal that demands the best out of everybody.”
The top six scorers from the 2012 national championship team are gone. Wiltjer is the only returning player to average more than 10 minutes per game last season.
In addition to four freshmen, who are all expected to contribute immediately, Calipari is tasked with integrating two transfers — Harrow and senior guard Julius Mays — into the lineup. Hood also will play this season after missing all of 2012 with a knee injury.
“Thank goodness we could do some this summer,” Calipari said. “I don’t know if I had a senior team, junior team, whether I’d have liked the summer stuff.”
With such a young team, the Wildcats are a work in progress in terms of player leadership. The 2012 championship team enjoyed the luxury of having senior Darius Miller, a 1,000-point-career scorer, coming off the bench.
Asked who was going to fill the “Miller role” on this team, Calipari didn’t mince words.
“I don’t even know if we’ll have that role,” he said. “I don’t know what this team is. This team is going to be different.”
That’s just one of the many questions raised for the Wildcats this summer.
At least one thing hasn’t changed though.
“(Calipari) is a little bit more mellow, but he still wants to win,” Hood said. “That’s what coach wants to do. He wins. He’s going to win. He’s going to win with whoever wants to win.”
In the two weeks before Big Blue Madness, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale will be previewing the 2012-13 UK men’s basketball series with a profile of each of the 12 Wildcats as well as other features to get you ready for the team’s attempt to repeat as National Champions. The player previews start with the freshmen and will advance through each class before eventually reaching the team’s two seniors.
Today on KyForward, you can read the profile of Wildcat freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein: “Cauley-Stein overcoming confidence issues with standout summer before UK debut.”