MIDWAY, Ky. — John Calipari likes his team. What’s new, right? But, he like, really likes this one. And how can we tell?
He decided on a whim last week to conduct a whistle-stop tour through the heart of the state on Sunday: Frankfort to Midway to Lexington aboard a train, hopping off at each stop to sign hundreds of autographs and pose for pictures with fans who ranged in age from diapers to, well, diapers. Why?
Because Calipari is already swooning over his 2018-19 Kentucky basketball team and he wants Big Blue Nation to love these Wildcats, too.
“I want these guys to know the impact they have on people in the state,” Calipari said Sunday evening in Midway after every player and coach signed posters and basketballs and anything else they were presented for 90 straight minutes. “I’m getting a great vibe from this group. I was in my office last night — I went in at 10 — and they didn’t know I was up there. I look out and there are like 10 of them in the gym, but they’re not playing; they’re just sitting there talking. They had been done playing.
“I told them, ‘There’s a spirit about this group right now.’ We talked about how they’re going to have to share, be about their teammates and why we play here.”
Individually, many of the 5-star recruits — Calipari has eight of those on this new roster — play at Kentucky because it’s the best place to spend a year or two before entering the NBA draft. But to the fans who lined up for hours to meet them, the whole point is hanging national championship banners.
The Wildcats have eight of those, the most recent coming in 2012 under Calipari. They had near misses in 2014, losing in the title game, and 2015, when a 38-0 team fell in the Final Four. On paper, this squad looks like Kentucky’s best shot at a championship since then.
“We’ve got a little bit of everything. We should be physically strong, we should be long, we’ve got some quickness, got a bunch of guys who can make shots, so it should be interesting,” Calipari said. “I’m excited. Normally in the summer, I back up and I get away. But with this group, I told them I’m kind of excited to be around them. So we start practice tomorrow — we have four hours a week with them on the court, and I’m going to spend all that time with them.”
Meet your 2018-19 Kentucky Wildcats. pic.twitter.com/5Abdt7JHJv
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) June 24, 2018
Calipari has his ideal mix of young talent and talented experience on this roster. Four scholarship players returned, including three former McDonald’s All-Americans who were significant contributors last season as freshmen: guard Quade Green, forward PJ Washington and center Nick Richards. Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis, a former McDonald’s All-American and All-Pac-12 power forward, could be a rare senior starter for the Wildcats.
Then there are the new guys: 5-star point guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, 5-star wing Keldon Johnson, 5-star big man EJ Montgomery and top-40 shooting guard Tyler Herro — plus redshirt freshman sharpshooter Jemarl Baker, a former top-100 recruit. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s a 10-deep roster.
Can you say Platoon 2.0? Calipari isn’t ruling out a repeat of the way he managed a loaded 2015 roster.
“The only thing I said is, ‘Everybody that deserves to play will play. I’ll figure it out. But this isn’t communism, and if you’re not up to it, you’re not playing.’ And they know that,” Calipari said. “They’re responsible for themselves. None of them are comfortable right now, and that’s the way you want it. There’s not delusional, like, ‘Whew, I got this spot.’ We’re competing here. Now, we all know I can play them all; I’ve done it before. Do I want to do that? No. But we’ll have to see how it all plays out.”
Calipari raved about the way that Hagans — the No. 1 point guard in the 2019 class who completed four online courses over the last seven months to graduate high school early and join the team this summer — and Travis wanted the challenge of fighting for playing time on a stacked roster. He beamed as he imagined aloud the way Travis and Washington, two guys who pulled out of the 2018 NBA Draft, will make each other better by battling in practice.
“I mean, it’s pretty good stuff,” Calipari said, grinning. He grinned wider still when reminded of the last time he took a Kentucky team on a whistle-stop tour of the state: to show off the 2012 national championship trophy. “It was pretty good last time we did this.”