LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari has eight new players on his Kentucky basketball roster, which is only slightly more turnover than usual, and former UK staffer Preston Spradlin has a whopping 10 newcomers at Morehead State. Thanks to an NCAA waiver allowing both programs a third exhibition game for charity, the teacher and student will test their young squads against each other Monday night at Rupp Arena.
“It’s obviously a great opportunity for us. I really appreciated coach reaching out and thinking of us to be a part of this,” said Spradlin, who took over a team in turmoil after nine games last season and led a 2-7 team to a 12-9 finish. “We have five in-state kids, five Kentucky kids, on our roster. They dreamed of playing in that building. [But] obviously charity is going to be the big winner.”
The game, which will not be televised, is being called the Kentucky Cares Classic and proceeds will go to Team Rubicon, a non-government organization that pairs military veterans and first responders to deploy emergency response teams. They’re currently helping victims of hurricanes in Florida and Puerto Rico and will soon begin work in response to wildfires in California.
Calipari, who helped raise more than a million dollars for hurricane victims in Texas with a UK basketball telethon earlier this year, hopes the exhibition game will bring in at least $500,000.
“The telethon that we’ve done over the years, the things we do at Christmas where we bring families in, yes, we’re doing that for those families and we’re doing that for these victims, but do you understand what it does for an 18- or 19-year-old to be able to give a family a rent check and see that mother cry, like, in their arms?” Calipari said. “To be able to get these kids to understand, ‘You’re going to be in a position to leverage who you are and what you’re about to help others.’ As much as it’s for who we’re doing it for, these kids need to feel this.”
In attempt to be sure Rupp Arena is full — or close to it — Calipari purchased 2,000 student tickets and has repeatedly reminded his fans that this is the first time a new-look Kentucky team will face a Division I opponent, and being in the building is the only way to watch.
“We’re not ready to play. I imagine (Spradlin) is not ready to play. We’re both in the same boat, but it’ll be a great benchmark for anyone who watches the game,” Calipari said. “Because our nonconference schedule, I mean, we’re looking at Illinois-Chicago, Vermont … they’re like a top-50 RPI team. I’m not sure we can beat a top-50 RPI team right now.”
To that end, this is a much more useful exhibition game than Friday night’s against Thomas More and next Friday’s against Centre College, both Division III teams. It’s also a feel-good homecoming for Spradlin, who took over as interim coach of the Eagles nine games into last season following allegations of abuse by Sean Woods (a former UK player).
One of Spradlin’s first phone calls was to Calipari.
“The advice that he gave me was to keep it about the kids, make it about them and their experience and just keep that in the forefront of my mind in every single decision and move that I make,” Spradlin said. “I took that to heart, and we really did. We had six seniors on that team last year and my thing to them was, ‘We have an opportunity to write our own story.’ ”
After starting 2-7, Morehead went 12-9 under Spradlin, who finished second in Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year voting and was given the job full-time. Now he’s leaning on Calipari again for keys to coaching a totally overhauled roster.
“I was fortunate to be here with Coach for five years and we had five really good teams and roster turnover was heavy,” Spradlin said. “You leave no stone unturned. You have to make sure you’re teaching each and every day. You have to get your kids excited about learning. You have to create an environment that’s competitive and they come in and embrace the details.
“Those are things that I really learned from Coach — and just being patient with your group.”
Calipari interrupted his former understudy.
“He didn’t learn that from me.”
Spradlin laughed and disagreed. Monday night, with a good cause as the backdrop, he’ll get to show his old boss what he’s learned.
“I had a front-row seat for five years. I soaked up every word that he said,” Spradlin said. “All of that is a daily reference with me and my team and my program.”