Kentucky Coach John Calipari customarily comes from jogging on a treadmill to his day-before-the-game news conference. So the beads of sweat on his forehead as he faced reporters on Thursday came as no surprise.
The surprise was what caused Calipari to sweat.
"I wasn't running," he said as a drop of moisture ran down his cheek. "I was just thinking of the game we have to play tomorrow."
Calipari was referring to East Tennessee State, which UK plays in its opener Friday night. With four fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior, the Bucs are the kind of veteran team that might exploit UK's group of basketball Justin Biebers.
That ETSU is coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance and is The Sporting News' choice to win the Atlantic Sun Conference apparently contributed to Calipari's high anxiety.
"They're three-fourths of the way up the mountain," he said of the Bucs. "We're still at the bottom."
Calipari, who subscribes to the undersell and overdeliver philosophy of salesmanship, put the opener in the context of a learning experience. With six newcomers (three starting) on its 10-man roster, Kentucky has plenty to learn. ETSU gives the Cats an opportunity for self-discovery.
"You can't learn about a team against Popcorn State," Calipari said. "You have to learn against an NCAA Tournament-level team."
Even with the chance to learn, Calipari termed the opener "a bad first game to schedule."
He described the Bucs as well-coached, tough-minded and freed of worry.
"They will play with nothing to lose," Calipari said. "We'll have a bunch of young guys in there trying to hold the fort down."
ETSU Coach Murry Bartow chuckled when asked about his Bucs pushing Kentucky around. Playing with more assertiveness was one of the areas Calipari has said the Cats need to improve.
"I don't know if we're going to push anybody around with our team," Bartow said earlier in the week.
ETSU's chances "boil down" to how its veteran players perform, he said. One of those veterans, senior Tommy Hubbard, has not practiced for four weeks because of knee surgery. As it is, the Bucs are expected to start three seniors and two juniors.
"I expect the four (seniors) to play well," Bartow said. "If they do, we can play and compete."
Besides playing with aggressiveness, Calipari said the Cats need to learn the importance of execution, handling the pace of games (when to push the pace and when to back off) and shot selection, which he deemed "so important.
"Freshmen are playing like it's just a pickup game," the UK coach said.
Calipari counseled patience.
"I'd tell everyone to be patient," he said. "I'll be as patient as I can be. It may not look that way on the sideline, but I'm going to be patient."
UK toyed with East Tennessee State in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. The Cats won 100-71 and it might not have been that close. Bartow said ETSU planned to pack its defense around the basket and hope Kentucky did not shoot well from the perimeter. That happened the following weekend when West Virginia eliminated UK in the East Region finals. Against ETSU, Kentucky made 15 of 33 three-point shots.
With five of those UK players gone to the 2010 NBA Draft, Kentucky expects East Tennessee State to believe this is a good time to get revenge.
"Oh definitely," freshman point guard Brandon Knight said. "Since we lost all those guys who went to the NBA last year, (ETSU can think) Kentucky will have a down year.
"I don't think we see it that way. I think we see it as competing at the same level (the Cats of 2009-10) did."
But it's impossible to know if that will happen.
"If anybody thinks they know about my team, I'd like to know who that is," Calipari said. "Because I don't know."
Junior college transfer Eloy Vargas will be available to play against ETSU, Calipari said.
Vargas' father died on Tuesday in the Dominican Republic. Visa issues prevented Vargas from joining his family, Calipari said.
If the visa issues are resolved, Vargas hopes to go home this weekend.