BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — While his Southeastern Conference colleagues advised anyone who would listen to look out for Kentucky this coming basketball season, Coach John Calipari appraised his team by all but saying, Look out below.
"They can rate us high all they want," Calipari said at SEC Media Day on Thursday. "There are 40 teams — 50, 60 teams — right now we could not beat. ... Maybe more. Maybe 100 teams."
Calipari qualified the comment by adding, "Because we're just not ready to play in a basketball game."
Of course, Kentucky does not have to play a basketball game until Nov. 11 (Marist), and does not have to play an SEC game until Jan. 7 (South Carolina). By then, UK is expected to be well on the way to living up to being the favorite to win the league and validating its No. 2 ranking in the coaches' national pre-season poll.
Calipari pinned UK's destiny — contender or pretender — on defense and rebounding.
"If we're to be what everybody thinks we are, we're going to have to be special," he said. "That means you can't just give up lanes to the rim. ... You contest shots and then you rebound like crazy."
Calipari seemed to find Wednesday's Blue-White Scrimmage offensive in more ways than one. The teams combined for 230 points. One team made 55.9 percent of its shots, the other 46.3. There were 46 assists, 27 turnovers and, perhaps most alarming to the UK coach, 38 offensive rebounds.
"That can't be who you are," Calipari said. "Now, we've focused a lot on offense, and it shows."
Vanderbilt, the media's second choice in the SEC race and also a top-10 team, looked much better to Calipari. The UK coach quoted unnamed NBA teams as telling him how good the Commodores have practiced.
"They look like right now they could play good," Calipari said. "And (the NBA teams) looked at my team and said, 'You could not.'"
Again, the key words are right now.
Kentucky has time to grow into the powerhouse most observers expect.
Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings declined an invitation to appraise Kentucky now or in the future.
"I don't know anything about his team," Stallings said. "They're all freshmen. Well, a lot of them are freshmen. I know Terrence Jones is good. All the guys coming back from a year ago are good."As for UK's current crop of highly regarded freshmen, Stallings added, "The other guys, I don't want to know anything yet. I'll know about them when I have to start to prepare (to play the Cats)."
By contrast to Kentucky, Vanderbilt counts on a core of seniors. Stallings all but gushed about the Vandy seniors. He noted how experience can be a curse if the veteran players concentrate on future careers, NBA or otherwise.
"You can have a guy check out on you because now you're thinking of, 'Where am I going to be working next year?'" Stallings said. "I have absolutely no concerns of any negativity of the seniors. ...
"My team gets it. This team gets it as much as any team I've ever coached."
The Commodores work hard, play unselfishly and keep a healthy perspective on basketball, the Vandy coach said.
"We don't have me-oriented guys," he said. "We don't have a me-oriented culture."
As evidence, Stallings cited how stars John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor bypassed the chance to enter this year's NBA Draft. One of the players, whom Stallings declined to name, balked at the idea of entering his name even if assured of being a first-round pick.
"They realize the sun and world don't revolve around them," the Vandy coach said.
Stallings shrugged at the media voting Vandy as the second-place finisher. A year ago, he mildly protested the media vote that placed the Commodores fourth.
"We'd like to finish first," he said. "That's all I can tell you."
Jenkins acknowledged how the Commodores took notice of the loftier expectations this coming season.
"It's definitely different," he said. "It's something that we're not used to. But I'm from Nashville, and just being a part of a team like this that's been highly ranked so far in the pre-season is special."
Jenkins saw Kentucky as a top-notch contender.
"They're a great team and they have some great guys, as always," he said. "They have a great coach. We'll see. They're definitely going to be a tough matchup."
Meanwhile, Calipari deflected such praise.
When someone noted that despite Vandy's talent and experience, college coaches voted Kentucky more highly rated, the UK coach engaged in light banter. "They did that on purpose," he said. "They're trying to put pressure on us. They're out of their minds."
Vanderbilt and Florida will be good teams, he said. "They will be hard games for us to win with freshmen playing."