LEXINGTON — After playing against a pair of lower-division teams in exhibition basketball matchups at Rupp Arena, the youthful Wildcats are heading for the bright lights of New York City (Brooklyn) and Atlanta.
The baby Cats, who are still learning, will face a couple of teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference — Maryland and Duke — in season-opening showdowns in the next several days.
Coach John Calipari, who is beginning his fourth year at UK, has said earlier that the Wildcats could go 0-2 to begin the campaign.
“Those two teams are well coached and they’re talented, and they’re veteran teams, so they’re going to be hard games for us,” added Calipari moments after his team destroyed Transylvania 74-28 on Monday night, outscoring the Pioneers 54-10 after a slow start.
It’s sure going to be interesting to see the Wildcats will fare against the ACC schools as the defending national champion is entering the new season as perhaps the nation’s most inexperienced team.
But Calipari doesn’t seem to think inexperience wouldn’t be too much of a problem for the Cats. The UK boss has said that if he had a choice between experience and talent, he would pick talent.
“This is a talented group,” Calipari commented of this year’s squad which is loaded with rookie superstars or future NBA standouts. The Wildcats, by the way, are only NCAA BCS-level team without a returning player who has made at least one start from the 2011-12 season.
Also, they are maybe the most inexperienced group in Calipari’s tenure at UK in terms of starts and minutes.
As you will recall, Kentucky has only six percent of its offense back from a season ago. That’s addition to losing all six players who started at least one game during the NCAA championship campaign of 2011-12.
Nevertheless, the Cats — who are currently ranked No. 3 in AP’s preseason Top 25 poll — have been picked by the media to capture their 46th SEC title this winter.
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UK freshman Nerlens Noel, the 6-10, 228-pounder who led all scorers with 15 points in the Transy game, is the most improved player on the team, according to Calipari.
“The guy that’s working the hardest in our practices right now is Nerlens,” Calipari added. “It’s showing. I said to him, ‘Have you ever been coached like this?’ (He said,) ‘No, man.’
“He’s excited about being coached this way, challenged and pushed, and now I’ve just got to get a team full of guys accepting the fact that you’ve got to let us (coaching staff) define your game a little bit.”
Said 18-year-old Noel: “Coach Cal told me that I just need to stay focused, work hard, be energetic and just bring what I have to the table.”
The USA Today’s national high school player of the year, Noel added that his confidence has improved.
“(The improvement in) my confidence came from all the drills and repetition in practice,” he explained.
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Even though Julius Mays — who pumped in 14 points, including four three-pointers against Transylvania — was born in Bluffton in northeast Indiana and played prep basketball in the Hoosier state, he is actually a Kentucky boy.
Several media folks covering the Cats, including yours truly and Middlesboro’s Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio, were surprised to learn that UK newcomer and graduate student Julius Mays has ties to Middlesboro.
The 23-year-old Mays, a transfer from Wright State, said he grew up in Middlesboro and that his grandmother still lives locally. His parents are Shirley Butler and Raymond Mays.
The 2012-13 UK media guide as well as the media game notes that are distributed by the school did not mention Mays’ Middlesboro connection.
If you missed Mays’ television interview with Alex Risen of Lexington’s WTVQ (Channel 36) in October when the player mentioned Middlesboro briefly, you can check it out on TV station’s Web site at wtvq.com.
Mays joins four Kentuckians on UK’s current 13-man roster. The other Wildcats with state ties are Madisonville’s Jon Hood, Nicholasville’s Jarrod Polson, Louisville’s Twany Beckham and Lexington’s Tod Lanter.
Mays played at Marion High School in Marion (also in northeast Indiana) where the 6-2 guard averaged 18.6 points and hit 44.3 percent from the three-point range during his senior year. He also participated in two Kentucky-Indiana All-Star contests.
Interestingly, Marion is the same high school where former Wildcat James Blackmon starred as a McDonald’s and Parade All-American. (Blackmon played for then-UK coach Joe B. Hall during the 1980s.)
Mays then played two years at N.C. State, starting six games, and once scored 18 points against Maryland in the ACC tournament as a freshman.
He transferred to Wright State, playing one year at the Dayton, Ohio, school. Mays started 28 out of team’s 30 games last year, averaging 14.1 points.
Although he suffered a knee injury (later termed by UK as a right leg strain) during Monday night’s victory, Mays is expected to play in Friday night’s ESPN matchup with Maryland.
“I was glad to hear the doctors say that it wasn’t anything serious, and that everything would be alright,” Mays said.
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Jamie H. Vaught, a long-time sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is currently a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro and can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.