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The positive momentum surrounding the UK men’s basketball team since the season-ending NIT loss in March hit a bump Tuesday with top-ranked recruit Andrew Wiggins‘ commitment to Kansas, but expectations for next season are still skyrocketing.
With six McDonald’s All-Americans coming to campus and two possible first-round picks returning for a sophomore season, UK has established itself as the odds-on favorite to win the 2014 national championship. Some fans have gone as far as to suggest the Wildcats might be the first team to finish a season undefeated since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers.
Is the UK head coach shying away from 40-0 talk?
“I’m not sitting there saying, ‘If we lose a game, it’s not a successful season,’ No,” John Calipari said Wednesday at his first news conference since the end of the 2012-13 season. “But you’re chasing greatness. What’s wrong with that?”
Sports betting website Bovada has given UK 5-to-1 odds to win the championship, even after Wiggins committed to Kansas.
The Cats’ chances of finishing undefeated are likely diminished regardless of the talent on the roster as UK faces both the No. 3 (Louisville) and No. 4 (Michigan State) most likely teams to win the 2014 tittle according to Bovada’s odds.
Many of UK’s most difficult games come early in the season when players might still be learning how to play with one another. The Cats meet Michigan State in the Champion’s Classic in Chicago in the third game of the regular season. UK then faces Providence, Baylor, Boise State and Louisville in December.
“It may be ugly early, and we’re playing good teams early,” Calipari said. “Through January we may not be a very good team. The point is, by the end f the year, we have the talent, the size, the toughness, the skill set.”
Calipari will also need to some of his young players to step up as leaders following a season in which he acknowledged the will-to-win was lacking at times. He reiterated that point Wednesday noting that when the coach has to take full leadership responsibility “your team can never have the success you want.”
Several of the incoming recruits will arrive on campus with the reputation of being on-the-court leaders who will not settle for losing, but Calipari stopped short of saying the roster will be dominated by those type of “alpha males.”
“We don’t have as many as you think,” he said. “This team will have maybe two. But that’s OK. What happens is, when you have multiple (alpha males), which we had on my team two years ago, different guys can lead at different points in the year.”
At least one UK player has a theory for how the Cats can increase their will-to-win across the board.
“Everything we do has to be win or lose,” said sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein. “Everything we have to do has got to have a consequence if you lose, and if you win you get praise for it.
“That’s the way that it’s got to be coming into it. That’s what’s going to create that dog in you to try and go out and just kill somebody.”
Of course the presence of multiple alpha male personalities on the roster also leads to questions about blending those personalities together for the good of the team.
Calipari is no stranger to getting players to take on smaller roles than might be expected for a prospect with the reputation of most of his recruits.
“More than any team I’ve had, shared sacrifice is going to matter in this group, and they knew that coming here,” he said. “I told every one of them, ‘If you want to shoot 30 balls a game, you don’t come here. If you want to be the only guy that’s playing, the one guy that everybody’s talking about, you wouldn’t come here.’
“I think again, it’s been laid out for them. Now the question is, will we all have patience? Will I have the patience? There’s no choice.”
And while the need for that patience may diminish any realistic shot at an undefeated season, Calipari made no attempt to downplay the idea that this team could be special, even by UK standards.
“I don’t mind a little pressure,” he said. “I’ve had it my whole career. I’ve had the gun to my head for 20-something years. And you know what? I’m at my best with the gun is to my head versus, ‘OK, I’m good, I can kick back.’ I’m not as good. And you know what? Players are the same.”