LOUISVILLE — University of Kentucky Coach John Calipari urged mayors and county officials from across the state to "have fun" with this year's team, although he warned those who sit courtside to prepare for errant basketballs early in the season.
"Have your hands up. Balls, early this year, are going to be flying" as the team learns Calipari's dribble-drive offense, he said Wednesday. "I'm telling you, the first month, you're going to say, 'These are the worst basketball shots I've ever seen.' "
But it will get better, he promised.
"Each week, you'll go back and say, 'Wow I really see what they're trying to do,' " he said. "There's not as many turnovers, there's not as many bad shots — and they're unleashed now."
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Calipari captivated the crowd of nearly 1,000 officials attending the Governor's Local Issues Conference at Louisville's Galt House, most of whom were clearly UK basketball fans.
But he had them hooked from the beginning as they greeted him with a standing ovation.
Tony Wilder, commissioner of the Office of Local Government and a former Boyle County judge-executive, introduced Calipari by saying his first news conference as UK coach in April was the "classiest production I've ever seen in my life."
"You captured this state in those few moments better than anyone I know of," Wilder gushed to Calipari.
The coach, however, downplayed the enthusiasm.
"The receptions are unbelievable. That's because we're undefeated," Calipari quipped to open his speech.
While he noted that he hasn't been able to run practices since classes ended because of NCAA rules, he provided an academic update on the five highly touted incoming freshmen. Each took two classes over the summer, he said.
"One C. The rest were A's and B's," he said, adding that mega recruit John Wall, the point guard from Raleigh, N.C., had the highest grade point average in the group. Wall signed with UK this spring when he still needed to gain academic eligibility.
Calipari said meshing the team will be his toughest challenge early on, with six returning players being joined by five freshmen and community college transfer Darnell Dodson.
"I've got six players coming in who think they poop ice cream," Calipari said during a question-and-answer session. "I've got to get those 12 to one agenda."
Calipari fielded a half-dozen questions from the largely star-struck group, many of whom lined up to get autographs and take photos with Calipari after the speech. Calipari also gathered Galt House hospitality staff members who were cleaning up the banquet hall to join him for a group photo.
At one point during the Q and A, Junior Wright, the financial director for the Department of Local Government, asked Calipari whether UK will beat the University of Louisville. Wright turned around to his colleagues — several of whom are U of L fans — and grinned broadly after asking the question.
"If we play Louisville and we get beat by 15 and we win the national title, will you be all right?" he asked. "I've got people who say they won't be."
He gave a similar response to that question earlier this summer in Pikeville, one of several speaking stops he's made across the state since being hired in April.
"You people are crazy. It's one game. But we better win that one game, huh?" he said, prompting laughter and applause.
Calipari spent much of his 18-minute speech talking about broader themes of positive thinking, alluding mostly to the tough economic times.
"I'm betting on the United States," he said at one point, prompting more applause.
But he also delivered a message of how to hang tough in the face of adversity in the same city where rival U of L Coach Rick Pitino has had a difficult few weeks.
Last week, Pitino apologized for a sexual encounter in 2003 with a woman, Karen Sypher, who has now been charged with trying to extort up to $10 million from him. Sypher claims to have been raped, but police have declined to file charges against Pitino, who has said the sex was consensual.
Calipari never mentioned Pitino and didn't allude to his situation.
Instead, he turned up the spotlight on himself and UK.
"I will tell you, the job that I have, I'm the commonwealth's coach," he said. "This is the commonwealth's university. And I'm humbled."
Patterson on watch list for Wooden Award
For the second straight season, Kentucky's Patrick Patterson has been named to the top-50 watch list for the John R. Wooden Award All-American Team and Player of the Year trophy.
The list is composed of 50 players who, based on last year's individual performance and team records, are the early front-runners for college basketball's most prestigious honor.
Patterson is UK's leading returning scorer and rebounder from last season, having averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 rebounds as a sophomore. He shot 60.3 percent from the field, 11th best in the nation.