HOOVER, Ala. — John Calipari scoffed at media balloting that voted his Kentucky team as the favorite to win the Southeastern Conference. "Whoever said that needs to be drug tested," he quipped.
During SEC Media Day on Thursday, Calipari emphasized the improvement his latest freshman-dependent team must make. He noted how Thursday's morning practice was devoted entirely to defense.
"We're truly an October team right now," he said.
But Calipari voiced confidence that Kentucky can be a national contender by March.
"I feel good about that," he said. "I'm just saying we're not good right now."
Calipari likened the current Cats to his UK team of 2010-11. That edition lost six SEC games but meshed in time to make a surprising NCAA Tournament run that ended in a Final Four loss to eventual national champion Connecticut.
"It took time for that team to get ready," he said. "This team may take longer than that team."
When asked about possible fatigue given his busy schedule, Calipari acknowledged an uneasiness that comes with a relatively young team that needs to improve.
"There's an anxiety that goes with 'Oh my gosh, do we have work to do,'" he said. "Anxiety tires me out."
Among the areas needing attention, Calipari noted:
■ The need to play with more effort.
■ The continued search for defined roles. He mentioned freshmen Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress as possible successors to DeAndre Liggins and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as defensive stoppers.
■ A leadership void. "It's hard to lead when you haven't figured out who you are yet," he said.
In assessing the SEC race, Calipari called Tennessee, Florida and Missouri as "three of the teams that stand above the rest of us."
Calipari downplayed perimeter shooting as an area of concern. Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer and transfer Julius Mays may be called upon to carry the load as perimeter shooters.
In listing the shooters on UK's 2011-12 team, Calipari noted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and shrugged. Marquis Teague (another shrug). Terrence Jones (another shrug).
UK had one consistent shooter as a starter, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller off the bench.
"We did all right," Calipari said in a deadpan voice.
Cal on Wiltjer
Calipari noted how he called on Wiltjer to improve as a defender.
"You're going to have to guard a position," the UK coach said he told Wiltjer. "I don't know what position that is. ... Probably 'three' or 'four,' depending on the position."
Calipari suggested that UK might be good as a zone team because of its length.
"I'd like to play zone if I could get myself to do it," he said.
The UK coach spoke of the possibility of a zone as the primary defense as unlikely. Any successful team must be proficient in man-to-man defense, he said.
"To play good zone, you have to understand the principles of man-to-man defense," he said. "We're not there yet."
When media votes did not place his team high in predictions, UK women's coach Matthew Mitchell downplayed the significance of such exercises. So, he said, he felt obligated to all but ignore this year's vote that made his team the favorite to win the SEC.
But Mitchell suggested the vote had some significance.
"Some tangible proof that in other persons' eyes, we've made progress," he said.
Mitchell spoke of his team as possessing the talent necessary to validate the media vote.
"We have more talent than we've had previously," he said. "I do think this team is talented enough to advance far."
Florida Coach Billy Donovan assessing the SEC: "The team that stands out having it all is Tennessee. They're the best team. I'm not sure they weren't playing as well as anyone coming down the stretch (in 2011-12)."
■ Georgia Coach Mark Fox on UK's dominance last season: "Kentucky could have played the NCAA Tournament 10 times and they would have won it 10 times. They were that dominant."
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227Twitter: @JerryTiptonBlog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com