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It wasn’t long after the UK men’s basketball team brought home the program’s eighth national championship in April that fans started dreaming of No. 9.
That is the way sports fans operate, but don’t expect UK head coach John Calipari to buy into the idea that the Wildcats face any pressure to repeat as national champions this season.
“It’s not like, ‘OK, they won and now how are you going to guard against complacency?” Calipari said in a preseason roundtable interview with local media. “How about we change the whole team and no one’s on the team (again)? How about that one? There’s one way of changing it.”
The six leading scorers from the 2012 national championship team are gone. Just one player — sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer — saw significant minutes last season, and he averaged five points and 11.6 minutes per game.
Wiltjer was on the court for just three minutes of the national championship game and averaged 5.8 minutes per game in the NCAA Tournament.
In place of the six NBA draft picks lost from the championship team — including the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks in the draft — UK features four new freshmen and two transfers.
“There’s not any more pressure,” Wiltjer said in a preseason interview with KyForward. “We do a great job as a coaching staff and players of just paying attention, staying in the current moment. Coach does a great job of saying this is a new team, and we’ve got new goals.”
Just because Calipari will feature almost an entirely new team this season doesn’t mean expectations for those outside the program are any lower.
Just weeks after the national championship game in April, ESPN’s Dick Vitale ranked UK No. 2 in his early preseason top 40 for the 2012-13 season.
Rivals.com ranked the 2012 UK recruiting class at No. 1 in the country. Calipari has signed the No. 1 class in each of his four years at UK.
While Calipari is downplaying the pressure of repeating, he’s not exactly diminishing anyone’s expectations.
“We’re worried about being the best team we can be,” he said. “Does that mean we could be better than last year? Maybe. What does being better than last year mean? Well you’re really good.”
UK’s freshmen were ranked No. 2, No. 8, No. 14 and No. 40 in the country by Rivals. com. Forward Nerlens Noel, forward Alex Poythress and guard Archie Goodwin are expected to start from day one of their college careers. Calipari labeled freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein as the surprise of sumer workouts.
Calipari’s freshmen have always been counted on for major contributions, but this group is the first to follow a group that won a championship.
They aren’t worried about being compared to their predecessors.
“It wouldn’t be fair for people to compare us to last year’s team just because that’s not our team,” Goodwin said. “We’re our own team. We have to do what we do.”
“This is Kentucky. There’s going to be pressure regardless of if we had won one or not,” Poythress said.
Sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow sat out the 2011-12 season as a transfer from NC State, but he had the opportunity to practice with the Wildcats for an entire year.
“I think it definitely helps with me knowing the system,” Harrows said. “But, I also took a year off, so I’ve got to get back accustomed to playing in that type of environment, playing for that long and stuff like that. I think I’m ready and I know what Coach Cal wants, but I’ve just got to get out there first.”
While the 2012 championship team included three players who had already played in a Final Four in Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, the current Wildcats have only one upperclassmen with significant college playing time in his past.
That player is senior guard Julius Mays, but his experience all came at Wright State. Still, he may be needed to add a valuable veteran presence to this season’s team even though it’s his first year in the program.
“I think it’s a great situation that I’m walking into: being a new guy but also being a guy with the most college experience,” Mays said. “I think there are different expectations for you. When things get tough, I think coach is going to look to me to be there for those guys and make sure that they stay positive.”
Miller was unquestioned senior leader on the 2012 championship team. When asked who would fill that roll this season, Calipari had no easy answer.
“I don’t even know if we’ll have that role,” he said. “I don’t know what this team is. This team’s going to be different.”
Calipari’s players appear to have bought into the idea that the performance of last year’s team has no connection to this year’s team, but they know those comparisons will follow them.
After all, while the players may be different, the ultimate goal remains the same.
“Of course we want to try to do what they did: win a championship,” Goodwin said. “But it’s not the same team, so whatever happens for us happens.”
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 series started Monday with a profile of Willie Cauley-Stein and looks at Alex Poythress tomorrow.
Today on KyForward, you can read the profile of Wildcat freshman guard Archie Goodwin: “Archie Goodwin not shy about assuming a leadership role as freshman for UK basketball.”