With his coaching era about to officially begin, John Calipari uttered a most un-Kentucky-like thought: Kentucky does not have to win against Morehead State in Friday night's season opener.
"I don't want these kids feeling they have to win," Calipari told reporters on Thursday. "No. You've got to prepare to win and let it go."
For a program that once saw the home team booed in what became a 29-point conference victory, Calipari sounded like a revolutionary. Winning not being the top priority — the only priority? — surely was not the kind of change UK fans envisioned when Calipari recruited the No. 1 recruiting class and persuaded All-American candidate Patrick Patterson to return for another season.
Yet, Calipari insisted on putting the game against Morehead State into the perspective of preparation for season-long improvement.
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"I understand what the expectations are," he said of UK fans. "The expectations are not to win in November. They're not. You could lose the first five (games) and win the national title. They'll forget about it."
Or UK fans could harp on a perceived chink in the Calipari armor: He can't win the little ones.
The new Kentucky coach laughed at the reporter's joke, and stuck to his big-picture view.
"I'm not trying to soft-sell this," Calipari said. "What I do is tell the truth. ... This is about us learning."
An opponent like Morehead State, which returns four starters from an NCAA Tournament team, allows Kentucky to gauge itself.
"The most important thing for me — and it always has been in November and December — is I must learn about my team," Calipari said. "Now, we want to win every game we play. But the most important thing you learn is you cannot learn against Popcorn State. All you learn against Popcorn State is you're better than Popcorn State."
As a co-favorite to win the Ohio Valley Conference championship, Morehead State clearly is not Popcorn State.
"(Morehead State) may rain on our parade," Calipari said. "If they want it worse than we do, they may. We'll see what we're made of. On Nov. 13."
The opener sets up as a classic contest between talent and experience. Kentucky has the more highly rated players even without John Wall, projected as the first pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, who must sit out the game. Morehead State has the know-how of battle-tested veterans.
Morehead Coach Donnie Tyndall called experience "our one advantage in the game."
One of his players, Ty Proffitt, noted that Kentucky had "off-the-charts talent."
In an early season game, experience versus talent has the feel of a rock-paper-scissors game. Multiple scenarios and outcomes seem possible.
Maze Stallworth, one of the perimeter shooters that Morehead State uses to balance highly regarded Kenneth Faried around the basket, suggested one benefit produced by experience.
"We're not going to show any fear," he said. "... That's our thing. We don't want to show any fear."
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas saw a clear preference in the talent-versus-experience question.
"I would rather have experience and good talent than super talent that is inexperienced early in the season," he wrote in an e-mail. "I think that Kentucky has a good enough mix against Morehead State, even though Kenneth Faried is the real deal. He could be taken in the second round of the NBA Draft.
"If Kentucky didn't have such truly outstanding guard talents, I would be concerned. But, the talent that Kentucky has should overwhelm Morehead State over the course of 40 minutes.
"The early minutes are really important. Kentucky may not be able to blow past them early but should be able to 'methodically blow out' Morehead over the course of the game."