LEXINGTON, Ky. — Quade Green had a bandage under his left eye Thursday when he met with reporters on the eve of Kentucky basketball’s season opener against Utah Valley. The freshman point guard said teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander caught him with an elbow and the gash required stitches, but not until after Green finished practice.
There is no mercy and no stopping these days at the Joe Craft Center. John Calipari is pushing his players to the limit because he seems to have come to grips with the harsh realities of coaching his youngest team yet. Only nine scholarship players, six freshmen and three sophomores, will be available for at least the first month of the season.
“This is as hard as I’ve been on a team since I’ve been here,” Calipari said. “Both stretching them out [physically] and then being direct and specific about what I’m looking for and what I accept. But they’re behind other teams.”
To that point, after a frustrating second exhibition game against Morehead State, Calipari conducted a brutal practice on the eve of Kentucky’s final exhibition game last week. The team ran 17 up-and-back sprints and then launched into 5-minute segments of uninterrupted scrimmaging — with lids on the baskets.
Players scored points for rebounds (one for a defensive, two for an offensive board), and were encouraged to fast break until they broke. Oh, and the losing side had to run even more gassers.
“That was crazy,” Green said. “Rebounding and pushing, rebounding and pushing. Now we got our minds right, got our bodies right — running and fighting to the elevation he wants us to get to. We’ve made crazy progress.”
And yet, Calipari sounded Thursday like a man bracing his rabid fan base for a bumpy ride in the next few weeks. The fifth-ranked Wildcats open with three games in five days, punctuated by a showdown with fourth-ranked Kansas in Chicago on Tuesday, but Kentucky’s coach was openly (and it seemed genuinely) worrying about Sunday’s home game against Vermont.
“As we start this off, I have to accept more than anyone else, more than any fan or media, that we are where we are and it’s going to be a process and we could get dinged along the way,” Calipari said. “I want to have fun with this — I personally want to have fun with this — but it’s hard, because you get used to how things are and this is going to be different. I’m going to have to be someone different.”
He’s been talking a lot lately about having a group of good kids with bad habits and said Thursday that roughly 27 practices with this team since the players arrived in June is not enough time to break those. It isn’t for lack of intensity.
Calipari said sports information director Eric Lindsey remarked after watching practice, “I’ve not heard you this loud. I’ve not heard you this way.” The coach added: “I’m not cussing, but I’m loud. I’m holding them accountable.”
Freshman forward Kevin Knox is the closest thing Kentucky has to a star — a potential NBA lottery pick, but not fully refined like some of the Cats’ leading men of the past. He believes Calipari’s grinding approach to practices will pull that out of him, however.
“We’re not where we want to be right now, but I think we’re definitely ready for the first game,” Knox said. ‘We had real good practice the last few days. A lot of guys stepped up and showed that they’ve improved, showed that they’re ready for Friday, so I’m pretty confident.
“[Calipari] will never be happy [but] we’re a little better than we were in the Blue-White [scrimmage] when he was yelling at us. We’re definitely better than that.”