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LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari has been through this before, you say? What’s the big deal about another freshman-heavy Kentucky basketball team, you wonder?
“This is a totally different deal,” he says. “This is kind of like what we had in 2014, where you have a good group of kids, you have a talented group of kids, but they’re not ready to win basketball games.”
Oh. See, for all the young teams Calipari has coached, the 2017-18 Wildcats will be his youngest. Eleven scholarship players, eight freshmen, three sophomores, zero juniors and seniors.
“Because I’ve been through it,” Calipari says, “that’s like saying, ‘You’ve been through a root canal. You can do this again, right? You’ll be better prepared and you’ll do fine, right? You know what’s coming.’ No. It’s still going to be painful.”
His best teams have always had the same mix: Freshmen are the best players, but veterans are the glue.
John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins starred in 2009-10, but junior Patrick Patterson was a critical piece. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist led the 2011-12 national championship team, but sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones and senior Darius Miller saved the day more than once.
The 38-1 team in 2014-15 had No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns, but the sophomore Harrison twins and junior Willie Cauley-Stein were vital to those Cats’ success. The Elite Eight squad last season had three freshman lottery picks but also a sophomore and two seniors among its top six scorers.
But all of those players are gone this season — eight of the top nine are gone, in fact — and what remains is exactly one player, 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel, who has logged more than 100 minutes (the equivalent of two and a half games) in college. Calipari is hopeful fellow sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones, a 6-10 former McDonald’s All-American, also will contribute this season.
After that, it’s all freshmen. The Wildcats might start five of them. They’re plenty talented, considering seven of them were ranked 5-star recruits by at least one major service: point guard Quade Green, shooting guard Hamidou Diallo, combo guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, small forwards Kevin Knox and Jarred Vanderbilt, power forward P.J. Washington and center Nick Richards.
But there are significant challenges when you lean so heavily on so many newbies.
In high school, “everything is about them,” Calipari said. “When I talk about an empowered team, they’re talking to each other, they’re playing off each other. This team, you still have this: Things will go wrong; will they take responsibility? They’re 17, 18 years old. Will the people around them take responsibility? Oh, no. So they’re going to be enabled and they’re going to start blaming.”
This is where Calipari’s previous experience helps. He’s seen this movie before and knows how to coach that mentality out of them.
“I put up an excuse board sometimes with some teams,” he said. “I number like 10 excuses. ‘My girlfriend was … have a cold … a hamstring.’ They get like 1 to 10. I say, ‘Look, I don’t have time to hear your whole excuse. Just give me a number.’ And then I’ll tell them, ‘You can give me combinations: You can give me a 3/5, doesn’t matter, but I don’t need a whole sentence. Just give me a number so we can move on.’”
These Wildcats should be elite defensively, thanks to a hyper-athletic, super-long roster that features seven players 6-8 or taller and nine guys with wingspans of 6-10 or longer. But again, youth presents a problem there.
Freshmen “don’t play every possession and one basket doesn’t matter to them,” Calipari said. “They’re exchanging baskets.”
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Lucky for Kentucky, the New Orleans Pelicans — whose roster now includes former Wildcats Davis, Cousins, Miller and Rajon Rondo — came to town this summer and trained at UK’s facility for a few days. They also played a little pick-up against the new guys.
Afterward, Calipari asked his guys what they noticed most about the pros.
“They talk!” he said. “And they won like 24 games last year. You have Rajon talking with Anthony about how they’re playing pick-and-rolls and they’re talking to each other and the weakside guys are talking and these [UK] guys are now hearing: If you don’t talk, we can’t survive. If it’s about winning, you will force yourself to talk to each other. That’s the hardest thing for young kids to do.”
Complicating things further, Calipari isn’t even sure how he wants to use all these new talented pieces. In recent years, Kentucky has found itself in the unusual position of playing with two or three point guards on the floor at the same time.
“Now you’re going to have either one or none that are, like, true point guards,” he said. “So you may have a team where it seems like basketball is going: no point guard, no center — just players. I’m in the process right now of meeting and talking with some NBA guys about [what to do] away from the ball. We are a spacing offense and that’s good — we’re not changing that — but you also have to be a movement offense now: hard cuts, a high-motor offense, in the half court.”
Because this team appears light on shooters and heavy on attacking forwards, Calipari expects opponents to play plenty of zone defense. With all of its length, Kentucky might use some zone of its own — against the coach’s very nature.
“We’ve got to be prepared from Day 1” to defeat a zone, Calipari said. “Probably put in a zone, and this could be a team that should play zone. Whether I’ll play zone, I don’t know, but you’re long and big and this could be a good zone team.”
Assistant Tony Barbee, the former Auburn coach, is big on zone and has slowly but surely been convincing his old coach and longtime mentor to employ it more and more. The Wildcats dabbled in the zone last season.
“If we can play against our own zone, I’m imagining we can play against anybody else’s,” Calipari concedes. “We could play with all 6-9 guys. You could have two 6-6 guards and three 6-9 guys. What?”
That sounds almost as crazy as having a team with virtually no college experience that many people believe could make a run to the Final Four. Remember that 2014 team Calipari mentioned? Is top four scorers were freshmen and its top eight were all freshmen and sophomores.
That team lost 10 games before the NCAA Tournament and drew a No. 8 seed. Then those Wildcats grew up, caught fire and ran all the way to the national championship game. See, the thing about a root canal is that it hurts but also helps.
While Calipari is bracing for the pain, he at least knows from experience that it eventually subsides. Usually. (Everyone is Lexington is still pretending the 2012-13 team didn’t happen.)
“What [freshmen] have to do is catch up to the other guys,” he said. “But in the end, they were just as good, if not better than the [older] guys.”
Calipari’s past freshman-to-veteran ratios
2016-17: Top three scorers were freshmen (De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo), but the next three were a sophomore and two seniors.
2015-16: Leading scorer was a freshman (Jamal Murray) but a sophomore, junior and senior were also among the top five.
2014-15: Team’s best player was a freshman (Karl-Anthony Towns), but sophomores Andrew and Aaron Harrison and junior Willie Cauley-Stein started.
2013-14: Top four scorers were freshmen (Julius Randle, James Young, Harrison twins) and the top eight were all freshmen and sophomores.
2012-13: Top two scorers were freshmen (Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress), but the next three were a sophomore, senior and sophomore.
2011-12: Two best players were freshmen (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist), but sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones and senior Darius Miller were among the top six.
2010-11: Top three scorers were freshmen (Brandon Knight, Lamb and Jones), but the next four were all juniors or seniors.
2009-10: Top two scorers were freshmen (John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins), but junior Patrick Patterson was right behind them.