Count John Calipari among those in the Big Blue Nation who see the makings of a special season, even by Kentucky basketball’s exacting standards, in 2018-19.
“The best teams I’ve had here were a combination of young kids with returning veterans,” Calipari said Monday, “and that’s the (kind of) team that has done some good stuff.”
When asked how well the UK team for this coming season fit that description, Calipari said, “I’m excited. We’ve got length. We’ve got skill. We can play like I have in the past when it’s more guards. Four-out kind of a deal where we didn’t have the ability (last season).”
More guards should translate into a better assist-to-turnover ratio, the UK coach said. Bigger guards like freshmen Keldon Johnson (6-foot-6) and Tyler Herro (6-5) lessen the concern about a potential size disadvantage.
And, as Calipari reminded reporters before a Satellite Camp session at Elizabethtown High School, Villanova won the national championship this year essentially playing four guards.
To add to the possibility of a perfect Kentucky storm forming, UK will get a head start by playing four exhibition games in the Bahamas in August.
“There are things we think will work that we’re going to look at and say, ‘I don’t like that, we’re not doing that,’” Calipari said.
Conversely, a player can win the confidence of the coaches in such exhibition games. Calipari said Brandon Knight did that in exhibitions in Windsor, Ontario, prior to the 2010-11 season.
Of course, the most famous example of preseason exhibitions serving as a proving ground came in the Bahamas in August 2014. That exhausting six games in eight days showed that a UK roster bursting with talent could accommodate a platoon system of substitution in order to guarantee playing time for as many as 10 capable players. Or as Calipari said at the time, it enabled everyone “to eat.”
It’s not hard to imagine Kentucky with 10 players deserving playing time next season. That counts Ashton Hagans, a recruit considering reclassifying to the class of 2018, and Reid Travis, a graduate transfer from Stanford reportedly thinking of playing for Kentucky. Calipari was coy when asked indirectly about Hagans and Travis.
Calipari did not sound eager to revive a platoon system.
“It’s not something I would want to do,” he said. “But if there are 10 guys all within the same (talent level), we know we can do it because I’ve done it before.
“But it’s not something I want to do. I want guys to compete. This isn’t communism. Somebody way better than you, he plays and you don’t. But I think, again, we have a lot of good kids who are good players. We’ll let them play it out.”
The veteran presence Kentucky expects to have got a boost when PJ Washington withdrew from this year’s NBA Draft. Calipari spoke of Washington benefiting from going through the NBA pre-draft process.
“Now, does it benefit us? Sure it does,” Calipari said. “Anytime you have kids returning, it’s a good thing. But I try not to look at it that way. . . . For us, it’s a big deal. But I want it to be a bigger deal for him than it is for us and the program.”
Calipari translated Washington’s stated wish to be a leader next season as a sign that the player is more comfortable and confident.
A player (Hagans?) reclassifying was “a possibility,” Calipari said.
As for UK adding a graduate transfer (Travis?), Calipari acknowledged his well-documented misgivings about players leaving a program with eligibility remaining. He said coaches at Drexel (former Calipari assistant James “Bruiser” Flint) and Cleveland State (Gary Waters) were fired after the departure of graduate transfers crippled their programs.
“I said that isn’t right,” Calipari said. “It’s not right for the game and it’s not right for those coaches.
“In the same sense, I have a responsibility to this university. And it’s not a rule I developed. If we do take advantage of it, it will be (perceived as) a rule I developed. But it’s not a rule I’m even in favor of. But my job is to make sure this program is in the best position it can be in.”
When asked about J.R. Smith dribbling out the final seconds of regulation with the score tied in Game 1of the NBA Finals, Calipari said he understood how such a mistake could happen in the stress of the moment.
A play less than a minute earlier grabbed Calipari’s attention. After calling charging on Kevin Durant, the referees went to the sideline monitor and changed it to a blocking call on LeBron James.
“I didn’t know the NBA could change a charge call,” Calipari said. “I had no idea. . . . So I’m going back to the NCAA (and proposing) ‘Let us change these charge calls.’”
Calipari insisted he was serious.
“Yeah,” he said. “If you can go back and look on tape, and it’s — quote — obvious he moved, I’m good with it because you get the right call. ... I’m all for that. I’ll vote for that.”