MOREHEAD — In expressing his wariness going into the opening game, Kentucky Coach John Calipari noted that Morehead State is an NCAA Tournament team.
True enough. Morehead State returns four starters from a team that in March made the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 25 years. But the Eagles say Kentucky won't see that team Friday night in Rupp Arena.
"We show glimpses of that team," point guard Brandon Shingles said before Tuesday's practice.
Teammate Ty Proffitt, the former South Laurel star who is eligible now after transferring from Notre Dame, suggested that no team wants to claim NCAA Tournament status in mid-November.
"We've got a long ways to go," Proffitt said. "We don't want anything but the best. We could be playing perfectly and we'd think we had a long way to go."
Exhibition play showed that Morehead State was well short of perfection. That was especially true in Monday's 91-57 victory over Asbury. Although winning easily, the Eagles wobbled against Asbury's press, as reflected in 19 turnovers. Kentucky figures to apply as much defensive pressure as possible.
"After the way we handled it, we expect 40 minutes of pressure," Shingles said. "We have to settle down and try not to get sped up."
Asbury got an assist when Morehead State Coach Donnie Tyndall chose not to work much on handling presses during the pre-season. "That's my fault," he said.
But Tyndall planned to rectify that misstep by making press offense a priority in practices this week.
"Their press bothered us," the Morehead coach said of Asbury. "Our whole plan starting today has been to work against the press."
Before Tuesday's practice, Tyndall had his players watch 90 minutes of video that showed how they mishandled Asbury's pressure. The Morehead State coach knows Kentucky can bring a different brand of pressure than Asbury.
"You can't simulate their length and athleticism," Tyndall said. "You just can't."
The Morehead State coach found a way to compensate. "When we work against the press, we're going to play against six people rather than five," he said.
When asked to compare the Morehead State team coming to Rupp Arena with the one that played Louisville competitively in a first-round NCAA Tournament game last March, Tyndall saw no comparison.
"Not even close," he said. "We are light years away."
The one missing player from last season is Leon Buchanan, the Eagles' leading scorer. But it's not the points that Tyndall is missing.
"Leon was a phenomenal leader for us," the Morehead State coach said. "That's the biggest thing. We haven't been a great practice team. I think that's due to leadership issues."
Injuries have also disrupted Morehead State's preparations.
One of the Eagles' key players, 6-foot-4 senior Maze Stallworth, might not play against UK in Friday night's season opener.
Stallworth sustained a concussion in the Eagles' exhibition game against Cedarville on Nov. 4. He sat out the exhibition against Asbury.
Tyndall said doctors wanted to see how Stallworth fared in non-contact drills Wednesday and then a full practice Thursday before clearing him to play against Kentucky.
"He may not play at Kentucky," Tyndall said. "We won't know (for sure) until tip-off."
Stallworth, who is the team's captain, averaged 12.1 points per game last season. He led the Eagles with 87 three-point baskets.
"He's huge," Tyndall said. "Just because he's got that experience. He's played in all the big games. The biggest thing is he can make big shots."
Morehead State has had several players nursing injuries this pre-season. Star big man Kenneth Faried has had a bruised knee and shoulder sprain. A shoulder injury sidelined starting forward Demonte Harper for a week.
Faried excelled in the exhibitions (a combined 36 points and 28 rebounds), but he voiced concern about his stamina with the prospect of competing against Kentucky's deep and talented front line looming.