Players agree, expectations are sky-high for basketball Cats

jtipton@herald-leader.comOctober 14, 2011 

What John Calipari described as an "unconventional" Kentucky team brings a conventional Kentucky expectation into the 2011-12 season: a national championship.

"We really know what the expectation is," one of UK's heralded Fab Four freshmen, Anthony Davis, said at Thursday's Media Day. "(The fans) really want us to win a championship this year, especially after coming close two years in a row."

In Calipari's first two seasons as UK coach, freshmen-dependent teams reached the Elite Eight and then the Final Four, the latter ending a program-record drought of 12 years off college basketball's grandest stage.

Now, with the latest recruiting bonanza joining veteran stars Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, Kentucky can almost expect to take that last step up to pre-eminence.

"If we do everything we're supposed to do, we should be able to get it," Davis said.

Davis shrugged when asked about any pressure that might accompany championship expectations.

"(Handling expectations is) easy because they really support us," Davis said of the fans. "Even if we do make a mistake, they'll be there for us."

The day before, Calipari silenced happy fans attending UK's annual Tip-Off Luncheon by declaring how he'd be disappointed if the Cats win a national championship in April and then do not get a single player drafted by a NBA team in June.

Calipari clarified.

"Obviously, we want to win national championships, and I want to win national championships," the UK coach said before adding, "but I'm more concerned about these players."

What Calipari calls a "players-first" program must put a higher priority on individual goals, just not every waking moment.

"During the season, we are concerned solely about our team," the UK coach said. "Yes, we are trying to get guys better and we are putting them in positions to help us win."

How exactly Kentucky goes about trying to win an eighth national championship moved Calipari to use the "unconventional" tag. Noting the many players of similar size and multi-faceted skills, he said, "We are unconventional."

Calipari likened the Cats to his 1991-92 team at Massachusetts. "Our point guard was a two-guard," he said. "Our two-guard was a three-man. Our three and four and five were three men."

UK might be a pick-and-roll team. Maybe rely on the dribble-drive offense. Could press. Could try to scramble games. Could play zone, which caused Calipari to note a zone with players 6-foot-10, 6-10, 6-9, 6-7 and 6-3.

"I can't teach it," he said of a zone, "but I bet you it would be a good zone."

Calipari also likened Kentucky to Hall of Fame Coach Denny Crum's Louisville teams of the 1980s. With its versatility, especially on defense, U of L won two national championships (1980 and 1986) and regularly advanced to Final Fours.

Crum confirmed talking to Calipari informally about how Louisville switched while defending screens and defended the low post despite not having an imposing big man.

"He asked me about that stuff," Crum said. "I didn't get into Xs and Os, or (Calipari) writing anything down. I think he thinks his team will be a lot like those teams."

Such versatility enables teams to press, not worrying about matchups in transition if the opponent gets the ball upcourt, Crum said. As for defending the post, "We mostly fronted the post," Crum said. "We did our best to keep the ball out of the post."

The comparison to The Ville was lost on Kentucky's players.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Davis said when a reporter asked about Louisville's dynastic run in the 1970s and 1980s.

Added Stacey Poole, "I don't know anything about the '80s. I'm a '90s baby."

But UK players nodded when told U of L used versatile players who could contribute from multiple spots on the floor.

"We've got a lot of guys who can shoot, dribble, pass, rebound, block shots," Davis said. "So it's really going to help us against other guys ... like college 'bigs' who can post up, but that's about it."

Jones agreed. "We have three or four guys on the court at all times that can guard different positions and switch," he said. "It makes you more aggressive. You take more risks on defense knowing it won't be that big a problem."

Another of the precocious freshmen, point guard Marquis Teague, spoke of an evergreen advantage that comes with versatility.

"You have the advantage every time," he said. "If (a defender) stops one thing, you have something else for him."

Calipari noted how little separates a contender from a national champion. A hot hand. A bit more swagger.

When asked the perennial Kentucky question of whether a freshmen-dependent team can win it all, Calipari said, "We'll see, I guess, as we go forward."

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