During an appearance at the Lexington Rotary Club on Thursday, Kentucky Coach John Calipari assessed this season’s still-evolving team of freshmen and lightly seasoned sophomores.
“We’re really big,” he said. “I wish we were a little more skilled.”
Then Calipari pointed out that despite being the least experienced team in college basketball, UK ranked high in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
This prompted him to allow his audience a peek behind the curtain of his public comments. What sounded like candor ensued.
“So we’re not as bad as I have to project so you people won’t expect too much,” Calipari said, prompting a burst of merriment from Rotarians. “But we still have a lot of room to grow.”
From that perspective, Kentucky is not in an ideal position heading into Saturday’s game against Harvard. Darn the luck, UK looked pretty good in its last game, a 107-73 thrashing of UIC last Sunday. Surely that performance ballooned the always ready-to-expand basketball expectations that typically exist in the Big Blue Nation.
UK players sounded encouraged.
“Everything was clicking for us,” PJ Washington said of the victory over UIC.
Brad Calipari echoed the sentiment. “I think definitely the last game we played a full 40 minutes with high intensity and being really engaged offensively in what we need to do,” he said.
When asked if the performance might breed overconfidence, Washington shook his head.
“Not concerned at all,” he said. “Because Coach Cal is not letting it get to our heads. He’s pushing us every day in practice.”
The idea of a good UK performance leading to overconfidence? “It’s unheard of,” Washington said.
The elder Calipari was not so sure. At a news conference less than two hours after the Rotary appearance, he said he did not know how susceptible his players might be to overconfidence. He did suggest that had Kentucky beaten Kansas, the Cats might have lost one of the next few games (against East Tennessee State, Troy or Fort Wayne) despite the likelihood of being ranked as high as No. 2.
“We’re not No. 2 in the country,” he said. “We’re not that team. Let’s hope by the end of the year we’re that team.”
We’re not as bad as I have to project so you people won’t expect too much. But we still have a lot of room to grow.
John Calipari, speaking to the Lexington Rotary Club on Thursday
By contrast, Harvard does not come to Rupp Arena riding a high. The Crimson lost 77-61 at Northeastern on Thursday night. That was the team’s fifth loss in its last six games.
As with UK, inexperience is a factor. Of Harvard’s top 11 players, all but one are freshmen or sophomores. Analytics devotee Ken Pomeroy continues to rank Kentucky as the least experienced of the 351 Division I teams. He ranked Harvard No. 339 in experience going into this weekend’s play.
While UK has been surprisingly efficient despite its reliance on freshmen (seventh-best efficiency on defense, No. 18 on offense), Pomeroy ranked Harvard No. 204 in offensive efficiency and No. 143 in defensive efficiency.
Harvard (3-5) has a recent history of basketball success. Last season’s 18-10 record marked the first time the Crimson failed to win at least 20 games since 2008-09, which was Tommy Amaker’s second season as coach.
So far this season, opponents have outshot Harvard overall (46.0 to 42.2 percent) and from three-point range (37.0 to 27.6). Opponents have also out-rebounded the Crimson by an average of 2.6 rebounds per game.
Harvard also averages more turnovers (14.6 per game) than assists (12.8).
Still, Calipari saw a challenge. He said Harvard had post play that rivaled Vermont, which extended Kentucky to the final minute.
Chris Lewis, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, averages 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds for Harvard. His father, Mo Lewis, played 13 seasons for the New York Jets. He is the highest-rated prospect signed by Amaker for Harvard.
Point guard Bryce Aiken, a 6-foot sophomore, leads Harvard in scoring with an average of 19 points per game. He was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year last season. He wears No. 11 because of his friendship with Kyrie Irving, who previously wore that number for his high school in New Jersey, The Patrick School.
“Their point guard has a green light to go,” Calipari said of Aiken. “And he can get in the lane.”
The game fits Harvard’s upwardly mobile scheduling. The Crimson played a competitive game at Kansas two seasons ago, losing 75-69. This season, Harvard plays at Minnesota on Dec. 30 and against Vermont on Jan. 2. The Crimson earlier played in the Wooden Legacy event.
Whether trying to tamp down expectations or expressing genuine caution, Calipari said Kentucky could lose its next four games on the next four Saturdays: Harvard, against Monmouth in New York, Virginia Tech and against UCLA in New Orleans.
“A couple players on this team could have gone to other places,” Calipari said of Harvard. “Couple of them could have gone SEC. They just chose to go to Harvard.
“So that game is not easy.”
Harvard at No. 7 Kentucky
When: 3:30 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 6-1, Harvard 3-5
Series: First meeting