As Kentucky Coach John Calipari sees it, the 2010-11 basketball season will start with a setback. The new-look Wildcats will not — and cannot — measure up to the UK team of last season.
"They won't," Calipari said this summer. "You can write that down right now. They can't. It's impossible."
Enes Kanter, if "freed" by the NCAA, will not be DeMarcus Cousins. Brandon Knight will not be John Wall. Patrick Patterson is a Houston Rocket.
During this off-season, Calipari repeatedly tried to tamp down the notion that the joyride of his first season as UK coach merely set a standard that would be easy to match. Insert one-and-done players, push button for memorable season: in the case of last season a 35-3 record, No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and course set for Final Four (but watch out, watch out for West Virginia!).
Never miss a local story.
Calipari even hoped out loud that Kentucky might lose a game in its exhibition series in Canada in August. Surely, that would downsize expectations. But UK swept the series despite playing without its frontcourt.
Afterward, Calipari seemed resigned to outsized expectations, the official synonym for Kentucky basketball.
"Outside of Kentucky, (people are saying), 'There's no way they can be as good as they were a year ago. They just lost too much,' "Calipari said.
"In Kentucky, 'They're going to be better and they're going to win by 30.' "
With its record-setting five first-round picks in this year's NBA Draft and the departure of Ramon Harris and Perry Stevenson, Kentucky lost players responsible for 70.3 of the team's 79.3-point scoring average, lost players responsible for 34 of the 41.7-rebound average and lost players responsible for 485 of the 573 assists and 236 of the 273 blocks.
"We're losing a ton," Calipari said.
Fortunately, Calipari has experience using varying parts to fashion highly successful teams. Forgetting the NCAA order to vacate the victories in 2007-08, he's guided five straight teams to 30-plus victories.
"My laser becomes what do we have to do to get these guys to max out," he said before adding, "I don't need them to max out in November or December. I need to have them playing like they should be (in the early season), not like it's January or February."
Calipari identified his "greatest challenge" as figuring out how this Kentucky team should play to maximize its potential, and how each player can contribute to that success. In his pre-season appearances, he's suggested a full-court style might be best with full attention paid to execution at both ends of the court.
Kentucky being Kentucky, there are additional challenges.
"How do I create an atmosphere and a mentality that we're playing for each other?" Calipari said. "Here at Kentucky, you've got to block out everybody else. You've got to block out the media. You've got to block out the fans. How about this? You've got to block out family. You've got to block it all out and be playing for each other.
"And it's not easy here. Of any place I've been, that's probably as big a challenge as anything."
During interviews this pre-season, some players spoke of the national championship.
Freshman guard Doron Lamb saw the team goal as "Just win every game and the national championship, and see what happens after that."
Another freshman, Kentuckian Jarrod Polson, noted that such ambitions are always part of the goals UK basketball sets.
"The team goal is the national championship, everybody knows that," he said. "And I think we have a very good chance."
Calipari welcomed such talk.
"I want them to think about winning every game," he said. "The only way you do that is how you prepare. You create a swagger through hard work, which they are.
"But I also want them to understand, and I've already said it to them, 'I'm not worried about last year. Last year's done. So how good can this team be?'"