Gary B. Graves AP Sports Writer
November 6, 2013
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari outdid even himself with this year’s recruiting class.
After luring some of the nation’s top prospects the past several seasons to Lexington, Calipari has six high school All-Americans in his latest eight-player freshman group. Not since Michigan’s “Fab Five” rookie lineup in 1991-92 has so much prep talent been assembled.
Now he has to find enough minutes to satisfy the highly talented individuals.
Calipari is also going to have to get them to sacrifice because there’s probably not enough minutes to satisfy everyone with so many good players on one roster.
These Kentucky freshmen are already being mentioned as the best freshman class ever. The Wildcats are ranked No. 1 in the nation and are expected to win Kentucky’s ninth national championship, perhaps even go unbeaten.
For them to live up to all the lofty expectations, Calipari will have to pull off one of his greatest balancing acts.
But as he seemingly does every year about this time, Calipari cautions against expecting too much too soon from a group that won’t play its first official game together until Friday’s opener against UNC-Asheville.
“We’ve made strides. We’re not a good team right now,” Calipari insisted after Monday night’s 95-72 exhibition victory over Montevallo. “We’ve got a nice collection of guys, but we’re not a good team.”
Perhaps, but a few games could reveal whether this freshman class that includes forwards Marcus Lee and Julius Randle, 7-foot center Dakari Johnson and a backcourt of James Young and twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, develops into the championship contender that they look like on paper.
While Calipari introduces his latest group of heralded rookies to the dribble drive and defense, he must also work in sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, another 7-footer, and seniors Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood. The Wildcats also recruited promising 6-9 forward Derek Willis and guard Dominique Hawkins, Kentucky’s reigning Mr. Basketball.
It’s a problem many coaches would love to have.
“I saw them this summer and was blown away,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, stopping short of calling Kentucky’s class the best ever compared to UCLA’s classes of the 1960s and 70s.
“I didn’t think it was possible that you could take essentially a new team every year and have it competing for a national championship. I think he’s shown he cannot only recruit, he’s a great coach.”
Calipari guided Kentucky to the national championship two years ago with a team led by freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. The hope is that Kentucky’s holdovers can provide the experience and veteran leadership that senior Darius Miller and sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones brought to that 2011-12 title squad.
The Wildcats lost one regular from that championship team, junior forward Kyle Wiltjer, whose decision to transfer to Gonzaga this summer was influenced by the influx of talent. But Poythress said he and Cauley-Stein “have talked a lot about stepping up and being leaders to help this team do well.”
For now, Calipari’s priorities are seeing which guys play well together and what kind of effort and energy they show. He’s curious about how Andrew Harrison will run the point when he returns this week from a bruised knee, an injury that forced Aaron to move over from his regular shooting guard spot.
The fifth-year coach hasn’t hesitated swapping entire lineups in preseason to get players’ attention. No matter what combinations Calipari chooses, some players will sit while those that play must prepare for fewer minutes or touches than they expect.
“This is a great group of guys, and I just knew that we would blend well together,” Johnson said. “Nobody complains about shots or minutes. We just have a main goal, and that’s to win a national championship.”
Many of Kentucky’s freshmen have either played with or against each other in all-star games, familiarity that has made it easier to establish chemistry. And despite the glowing resumes all of the Wildcats boast, egos appear to have been checked at the door.
Calipari said the same selflessness that the 2011-12 championship squad showed is what this group of Wildcats need if they want to reach the same heights.
“They’re in control,” the coach said on media day. “The problem we have right now is we have a brand new team every year. So it’s hard to say, ‘OK, we’re going to play these seven or eight (guys) and these five are going to play four minutes.’
“No one’s promised anything here. You’re going to have to earn minutes.”