Ex-Cat Julius Mays, who flies to Italy on Friday to continue his basketball career, expects Kentucky's 2013-14 team to go places, too. You could say he thinks UK's season will be molto bello.
In preparation for playing professionally in Europe, Mays worked out with UK players this summer. He got a close look at several of the celebrated incoming freshmen.
"They're looking good; they're really good," he said of the freshmen he saw. "Each one brings something different."
Mays didn't play with Dakari Johnson, James Young or twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison. Here's how he assessed the freshmen he did see:
■ Julius Randle. "A pit bull. That's what I call him. He's scary on the court. I feel sorry for anybody that has to guard him. Because he's a dog. He just goes and gets it."
■ Dominique Hawkins. "The biggest shock. I never got to see Dominique play (on the high school level). He impressed me a lot."
■ Marcus Lee. "A lot of energy and very athletic."
■ Derek Willis. "He can shoot. Once he gains some weight, I think he'll be able to contribute a lot."
Mays also said he saw improvement from sophomore graybeards Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein.
As we'll no doubt keep hearing from Coach John Calipari, Mays emphasized how important it will be for these talented players to mesh as a unit.
"If they all can check their egos and get on the same page and be coachable, ... the sky is the limit for them," he said.
Mays was prepared to call it a career when Kentucky's season ended at Robert Morris last March. He said he was "a little shaky" on trying to play professionally. NBA teams were not throwing themselves at him. And he wanted to be an everyday father to his young daughter.
A week or so after UK's season, Mays went to the basketball office to catch up with the coaches. He told them he was unsure about his plans.
"It's too early. I was too good a player to hang them up right now," Mays said he was told. "They all told me, once it's over, it's over. There's no coming back. They all strongly urged me to keep playing."
So Mays interviewed agents before hiring Chris Haynes-Smith of Denver-based Above the Rim Management. Mays subsequently signed with the Italian team Mobyt Ferrara.
"I only pursued deals for Julius in Italy, France, Spain, Ukraine, Israel, Turkey, Greece, and Germany," Haynes-Smith wrote in an email message. "When Julius signed the deal with Ferrara, it was his most intriguing offer at the time for a few different reasons. 1.) The team plans on using him as a combo guard of course, but he will get substantial minutes at the PG position. 2.) very strong competitive league 3.) High quality of life in Italy for Julius and his family 4.) Strong financial situation."
Mays welcomed the chance to play point guard, the position that seemingly gives him the best chance of someday reaching the NBA. His season as a designated shooter for UK was an aberration.
"All my other years, I was playing the point," he said. "So it's not something I'm uncomfortable with."
Mays' new team will fly his family to Italy soon to join him in what he calls "an experience of a lifetime."
As for the language barrier, Mays said there are cellphone apps to provide translations. "I'm already up on those," he said.
Tubby salutes Cal
In a conversation about his upcoming induction into the UK Athletic Hall of Fame, former basketball coach Tubby Smith saluted the program's remarkable success under current coach John Calipari.
"I've always had a lot of respect for John and with all he's accomplished," Smith said. "He's certainly restored Kentucky back to an elite program."
Earlier in his coaching career, Calipari made UMass basketball a national contender and revived the program at Memphis.
Even with the misfortune of last season (Nerlens Noel's torn ACL, uneven point guard play, lack of veteran savvy and pedestrian 21-12 record), Calipari will enter this season owning the best winning percentage of any UK coach. His .826 winning percentage (123-26) bests Adolph Rupp's .822 (876-190), Rick Pitino's .814 (219-50), Smith's .760 (263-83) and Joe B. Hall's .705 (297-100).
Tubby Smith knew what he was getting into when he accepted the Kentucky coaching job in 1997. He had been an assistant on Rick Pitino's UK staff.
But his first brush with the Big Blue came before that. He had been an assistant coach for J.D. Barnett on a Virginia Commonwealth team that played in the 1983 UKIT. VCU lost the opener to BYU 81-77, then beat Wyoming 70-57 the next night.
"So you have a pretty good feel," Smith said. "You know the fanaticism of the fans. You knew they drew great crowds night in and night out."
UK presents an opportunity few basketball coaches could resist.
"I just knew that any coach would have the opportunity to recruit top players," Smith said. "It gives you the opportunity to win just about every time you go on the court. You can get the best players. That's what everyone in the business aspires to do."
We mere mortals have our anxiety dreams. How could I have not gone to this class all semester? How can I get past all those snakes? On a personal note: The game is over, but I can't find the &%*$@ interview room!
Rex Chapman, a basketball phenomenon since high school, is not immune. Now 46, he said he has had recurring anxiety dreams.
He dreams of making a steal at midcourt and heading to a breakaway dunk. Then a defender always catches up and blocks the shot.
That's interesting. With the possible exception of John Wall, Chapman might have been the best and fastest UK player at getting to the basket in the last 30 years. A young Chapman as a dribble-driver is a delicious thought.
Chapman has experienced another recurring dream for years.
"I'm getting dressed and ready to play a game," Chapman said. "For some reason, I can't locate my tennis shoes, and I can't get to the trainer's room to get my ankles taped."
He's got about a month to prepare for the induction of this year's class into the UK Athletic Hall of Fame.
Rex Chapman (aka King Rex) entered the 1988 NBA Draft after his sophomore season, a decision that stunned many UK fans and irked more than a few. Looking back, he recalled the "impending doom" of NCAA sanctions. After a death march of a season in 1988-89, NCAA penalties staggered the program.
Another factor was the departure of senior teammates Ed Davender, Winston Bennett and Rob Lock after the 1987-88 season.
"I was going to be returning to a team that had no experience," Chapman said last week. "Back then, even starting as a freshman was unheard of.
"I was a young guy trying to make the best decision I could."
Of course, top freshmen arrive at college now thinking they'll be picked in the NBA Draft the next June. There's no problem finding prospects who say that's a significant component in UK's recent recruiting success.
"Furthest thing from my mind," Chapman said. "I was just trying to contribute a little bit my freshman year."
In 1986-87, he became the first freshman since World War II (and only the fourth to that point) to lead UK in scoring (16 points a game).
On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal listed the college schools that had the widest discrepancy in winning percentage for their football and basketball teams. In other words, the best examples of so-called "football schools" that maintain basketball programs and "basketball schools" that field football teams.
No surprise that Kentucky had the biggest difference in basketball versus football success: a .263 better all-time winning percentage in basketball. The other top five were predictable: 2. Duke (plus .230), 3. Kansas (.224), 4. Indiana (.221) and 5. Temple (.200).
The schools with the biggest difference in football success versus basketball are 1. Nebraska (plus .173), 2. Michigan (.155), 3. Georgia (.129), 4. South Florida (.114) and 5. Oklahoma (.111).
The WSJ called these schools "one-trick ponies."
Rupp Arena will hold a public auction Friday under the Jefferson Street bridge. Among the items up for auction will be two wooden lockers that had been part of the UK locker room from the sweeping renovation in 2004 to the even-more-grand renovation in 2013. There will also be 11 of the original lockers installed when Rupp Arena opened in 1976.
Bill Owen, the CEO and president of the Lexington Center Corp., said people also can bid on an ankle-taping chair.
Proceeds from the auction go to the Lexington Center Corp. general operation. The auction is a disposal of public assets, Owen said.
Many of the items to be auctioned (but not the lockers) will be available for public inspection earlier in the week. The auction is set to begin at 9 a.m. Friday.
'Gives a hoot'
Second-year coach Edrick Floreal hopes to make UK's cross-country and track and field teams relevant on the national level. Toward that end, he recruited a class of newcomers this school year that numbers 49.
Floreal said the assist he gets from Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart in trying to sell prospects on UK's intention to be a power in cross-country/track and field. It's not unusual for Barnhart to want to talk personally to prospects.
"We are serious; it's not just me telling you," Floreal said of the message sent by Barnhart's involvement. "It makes a huge difference when the man in charge actually gives a hoot about track."
To UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart. He turns 54 on Tuesday. ... To former UK shooter Todd Tackett. He turned 34 on Thursday. ... To former Mississippi State coach Richard Williams. He turned 68 on Thursday. ... To former UK star Jodie Meeks. He turned 26 on Wednesday. ... To basketball icon Richie Farmer. He turns 44 Sunday. ... To longtime man Friday for UK basketball Van Florence. He turns 67 on Monday.