UK Men's Basketball

Cats want to win a national championship. They’ll have to get in shape first.

Kentucky guard Hamidou Diallo paused during a free throw at the Blue-White Game in Rupp Arena last Friday.
Kentucky guard Hamidou Diallo paused during a free throw at the Blue-White Game in Rupp Arena last Friday. Michael Reaves/Lexington Herald-

Freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander estimated that Kentucky players are doing 50 to 75 sprints during each day’s practice.

To understand the reason for all the running requires a look backward: all that cramping during the Blue-White Game. And also a look forward for Kentucky to progress from this embryonic stage of the season to the ultimate of college basketball.

“It’s looking a little rough . . . ,” Gilgeous-Alexander said Thursday of the preseason practices. “We know it’s a process. We just want to be good come March.”

When asked to define what he meant by rough, he said, “Like we’re sloppy. We’re young. We don’t know exactly how everybody plays. We don’t pay attention to details sometimes. We’ll miss a few assignments.”

More than once, Gilgeous-Alexander spoke of this UK team getting to where it wants to go. Which is?

“Ultimately, we want to win a national championship,” he said. “And we know we have to put in a lot of hard work and dedication.”

This prompted a question: What gave the UK players reason to believe that was possible during this period of rough and sloppy practices?

“I think it’s because we’re all great guys,” he said. “We’re all for each other, and we’re all really competitive. And that’s what you need in a championship-caliber team. You need guys that are for each other and that will compete and do whatever it takes to win. And that’s what we have on our team.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari said his team is “conditioning like crazy” in practice for the start of the season. UK plays Thomas More in an exhibition game Friday night.

UK practices are not stop-and-go from start to finish. In getting from sloppy to the NCAA’s one shining moment, Calipari said he was emphasizing conditioning, in part to deal with multiple players cramping during the Blue-White Game.

“Conditioning like no other team I’ve coached here,” he said.

Meanwhile, Calipari said he would try to be more accepting of mistakes made in games. For instance, the first exhibition game is Friday against Thomas More.

“I’m still trying to figure out who they are,” he said of the current Cats. “Which means I’ve got to back up and accept some of the stuff which normally I don’t accept. The question is can I do that?”

Gilgeous-Alexander sounded ready to accept Calipari’s approach, whether more patient or not.

“I don’t really pay attention to stuff like that,” he said. “That’s Cal and his coaching. He does a good job at it. Whatever he feels he needs, he’ll do for us.”

Into the unknown

On Friday, UK plays outside competition for the first time. The exhibition opponent is Thomas More, an NCAA Division III team from Crestview Hills, Ky.

Sacha Killeya-Jones, one of UK’s elder statesmen as a sophomore, acknowledged that the Cats will be venturing into the unknown.

“It’s somewhat of an unknown just because it’s the first time playing against a new team,” he said. “But from what I’ve seen in practice and the scrimmage we had so far, I think we have a decent idea of where we are. We know we have to get better.”

Morehead State basketball coach Preston Spradlin, a former member of John Calipari’s staff, talks about Monday night’s Kentucky Cares Classic exhibition game

Stop and listen

Calipari said he had stopped practices to instruct enough to wonder if that was a factor in a relative lack of conditioning in the Blue-White Game. But the instruction is necessary as preparation for future opponents.

Gilgeous-Alexander said he noticed the stop-and-go nature of workouts.

“I’ve never been coached and stopped that much in practice,” he said. “But realizing how far behind we are and how far we have to go, it’s good.”

Cal is Cal

Killeya-Jones did not seem to perceive a stark difference in Calipari’s coaching this preseason as opposed to this time last year.

“I think Cal is Cal,” he said. “He’s not going to change himself. He’s basically got this down to a science, and we trust what he’s doing. He’s been pretty much the same from what I’ve seen in my two years here.”

Etc.

▪ Thomas More, which is expected to start two seniors and three juniors, had a 22-7 record last season. The Saints are not expected to start a player taller than 6-foot-6.

▪ Mike Morgan and former Arkansas shooter Pat Bradley will call the game for the SEC Network.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

UK exhibitions

All three games in Rupp Arena

Friday: Thomas More, 7 p.m. (SEC Network)

Monday: Morehead State, 7 p.m. (No TV)

Nov. 3: Centre, 7 p.m. (SEC Network)

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