John Calipari had an epiphany as he drove home from one of his new Kentucky team's workouts in early September.
The sight of many more players with size and speed and strength and skill and — maybe most importantly — thirst for competition reassured the UK coach. Last season truly was an aberration, merely a NIT to flick off a proud program's lapel.
"It's back to where we were," Calipari said.
Kentucky is Kentucky again.
"They were just playing through bumps," the UK coach said. "Naturally getting to the rim. And they're banging each other. I went home singing to myself. Back ready to start talking crap again. Ready to go."
At this point, the epiphany happened.
"What went through my mind?" Calipari said. "These guys are all going to leave. Where is my phone?"
For better and worse, Kentucky basketball's revolving door again spins at optimal speed. The downside to selling a fast track to the NBA is that — duh — the heralded recruits stay only one season. But what a fun season it can be.
As in the winter of John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins-Eric Bledsoe or later Anthony Davis-Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky reloaded. Now, Calipari need only re-apply his proven ability to transform individual ambition into remarkable, if all too brief, unity of purpose.
Asking whether the latest incoming freshman class, which includes six McDonald's All-Americans, can fit its many egos comfortably inside one team sounded almost unnecessary. But, again, the workout that caused Calipari to break out in song (Back in the High Life Again, by Steve Winwood?) seemed to ease that anxiety. Like his many high-achieving all-star teams of the past, this season's players apparently enjoyed the competition rather than felt threatened by it. "This is what I was used to seeing," the UK coach said. "So I don't think that will be a problem.
"The issue for us (is) how quickly can we come together? Can we get in the kind of shape you need to get in to compete at the level we're going to try to compete?"
Of course, Calipari never got the answers he wanted last season. Now-departed point guard Ryan Harrow never became the tough-minded team leader. The coach demanded, pleaded, cajoled and plotted, but he couldn't get the Cats to compete harder, prepare better or shake off adversity. They didn't grow up on command.
The coach threatened benchings (an empty threat given the lack of depth). He spoke of how a fear of failure can motivate and used one of the 2011-12 season's freshman warriors, Kidd-Gilchrist, as an example to follow.
When emotional exhortations and established precedents didn't work, Calipari tried to persuade with cold, unfeeling science. He measured heart rates, which supposedly gave an objective reading on how hard players tried. The Cats also counted calories with the idea being improved play through more abundant nutrition, a basketball updating of Napoleon's dictum that an army marches on its stomach.
None of it worked.
When asked whether last season, and its inglorious ending in a first-round National Invitation Tournament loss at Robert Morris, would be motivation in 2013-14, Calipari recoiled. "So far behind me, it's not even in my mindset," he said.
Calipari then explained how he corrected last season's unfixable problems. After heightening the drama by asking reporters if they were ready to hear the secret, the UK coach lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and said, "Better players. More of them."
Presumably, six McDonald's All-Americans will push sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress to new heights. Glue guys Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood provide ballast.
Hard to argue with the better-players-and-more-of-them formula. It's the Kentucky way: Smother the opposition with overwhelming superiority.
Yet, an ironic idea lingered as Calipari super-sized the 2013-14 roster. Might there be too many better players? Specifically, could twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison peacefully coexist with stud forward Julius Randle?
Talk of the Harrisons favoring each other to the point of not sharing the ball with their playmates hung in the recruiting air. Calipari dismissed such talk as "myths" perpetuated by rival coaches and amplified by media during the recruiting process.
Yes, the twins are more attuned to each other.
"But on this level, we have to be smart," Aaron said. "He's playing to win and I'm playing to win."
Randle, the alpha freshman and a fellow Texan, had been a supposed rival for the loving gaze of recruiting analysts, and maybe now for the approval of Calipari and NBA scouts. Aaron Harrison dismissed such thinking. "I've been knowing Julius since I was 9 (or) 10 years old," he said. "We've been playing against each other since then. (He's) a great friend of mine."
Calipari touted the importance of newcomers already being familiar with each other. That wasn't the case with Nerlens Noel, Poythress, Cauley-Stein and Archie Goodwin this time last year. Still vivid is the memory of Goodwin practically shaking his head as he told reporters about Cauley-Stein's basketball-isn't-everything outlook.
Of this season's freshmen, Calipari said, "They all know each other. ... They know they need each other. And they know it's going to take each of them."
The players have gotten to better know one another — and perhaps themselves — in what Calipari suggested were spirited workouts this summer and fall. For instance, Poythress benefits from competing against Randle.
"That's a handful," Calipari said. "That's like going against a 6-9 Michael Kidd(-Gilchrist) every day. He's not going to slow down. He's trying to dunk on you whether you don't feel like playing today or don't feel like embarrassing anyone today. ...
"You embarrass him or he embarrasses you. All of a sudden, you start changing."
Poythress is considering a move to small forward, which Calipari suggested was a retreat from the competition against Randle. Poythress termed it a move to his likely position in the NBA.
Another freshman, center Dakari Johnson, looked better than expected. A drop of about 7 percent of his body fat made Johnson an above-the-rim player and made Cauley-Stein have to "step on the gas," the UK coach said.
Marcus Lee is the athletic shot blocker who makes drives to the basket problematic. James Young, a shooter and "slippery" penetrator, competes with the Harrisons.
"We don't have the coolness like 'I just don't care,'" Calipari said. "Those dudes are going after each other."
Calipari stopped short of calling this season's Kentucky team his best collection of talent. He sidestepped an invitation to compare by citing the first-round picks on earlier UK teams. He reverted to cautious coach mode. Did I say Kentucky's back?
"We're not back," he said. "We have a long way to go. As far as what we look like, we're back. Now, we look like we've always looked like at Kentucky. Whether we play that way, we'll have to see."
While acknowledging his giddiness over this season's possibilities, Calipari added, "But I'm also on the phone three hours a night trying to figure out who the '14 class is going to be."
SEC tourney tickets on sale Tuesday
Tickets for the Southeastern Conference Tournament and the Champions Classic double-header go on sale today.
The SEC Tournament will be March 12-16 in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, Tickets go on sale at 9 a.m. EDT, the SEC announced. Ticket books are $300 each.
The Champions Classic, which features Kentucky vs. Michigan State and Duke vs. Kansas, will be played Nov. 12 in Chicago's United Center. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. EDT. Prices range from $39 to $405 and can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com, by calling Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000 or by visiting the United Center.
Herald-Leader Staff Report
The first in a series of UK player profiles will feature freshman center Dakari Johnson.