A case can be made that Kentucky's biggest rival isn't Louisville or North Carolina or Florida. It's the NBA, which plucks off the best players each year, leaving UK as college basketball's Sisyphus pushing that one-and-done rock back up the hill every season.
So it came as a pleasant surprise last spring when Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb chose to return to Kentucky for their sophomore seasons.
As UK Coach John Calipari explained, the decisions had as much to do with improving their NBA stock as furthering the Cats' basketball interests.
"Terrence set a goal," Calipari said late this summer. "He wanted to be a top-10 draft pick, and it wasn't going to happen."
The legwork UK did suggested Jones would be taken somewhere in the middle of the first round, while Lamb was no sure first-rounder, Calipari said. So each player decided to come back in hopes of being more highly coveted in 2012.
"I think both of them were smart," Calipari said. "... Now you've got to take advantage of it."
Instead of assuming they are the big men on UK's campus this coming season, Jones and Lamb need to work diligently to turn NBA heads.
"I am going to compete every day and (against) everyone I go against," the UK coach said of the attitude he'd like to see. "I'm not here just to play, now. I came back for a reason."
Calipari noted that not every player wants to put in the work necessary to be a standout. Some players might shy from the pressure that comes with being perceived as one of the best.
Or as the UK coach put it, "See the girls, go out to the clubs (and) play a little bit."
But Calpari suggested Jones understands the difference between being a good player and being an All-American.
"He's on that path right now," Calipari said. "I'm loving it because I'm seeing him physically grow. I'm seeing him mature as a person ... . I'm really proud of what he's doing."
As for Lamb, he's been prodded for more effort by Calipari since the exhibition tour of Canada in August of 2010. UK fans may recall Calipari chastising Lamb for insufficient effort in the pre-game warmup before the first exhibition.
The prodding continues. "If he's in great condition and he has a sense of urgency, he's our best basketball player," Calipari said.
The UK coach suggested that Lamb might not be the team's fastest runner or best ball handler or, perhaps, even the best shooter.
"But as far as knowing the game, having a feel for the game of basketball, he'll have it," Calipari said. "He may be one of the top five in the country.
"Now, will he have the sense of urgency? ... That's why we keep challenging: Do you want to be the best? You have the ability to be the best. Go do it."
When asked why Lamb has not shown a zeal for the game, Calipari noted how some players can be productive without a noticeable passion.
"If something has come easy for you, you've never had to fight," the UK coach said. "Why would you fight?"
Point guard depth
At this early stage of preparation for the 2011-12 season, John Calipari identified backup point guard as an apparent void to be fill.
Ryan Harrow, the transfer from N.C. State, will be the backup point guard in practice. He gives presumed starter Marquis Teague a challenge each day but, Harrow must sit out this season.
So if Teague gets in foul trouble or sprains an ankle, UK's point guard is ... ?
"We've got to figure that out," Calipari said.
The UK coach mentioned Doron Lamb as a possible candidate for backup point guard duty. He also spoke of Darius Miller, who he said could get time at any of the five positions depending on the opposition.
Transfer Twany Beckham and Jarrod Polson are candidates, too.
"I'm not going to give it to somebody," Calipari said before adding a cryptic, "If they're not good enough, we'll look elsewhere."
Hood in 2011-12?
Junior guard Jon Hood tore an anterior cruciate ligament this summer. He remains hopeful of joining the UK team as an active player this coming season.
"I would tell you if he were able to play 75 percent of the season, you come back and play," John Calipari said. "If you're not able to play 75 percent of the season or more, then you don't come back and play."
Hood played sparingly in his first two UK seasons. But Calipari spoke of Hood as a productive contributor sometime in the future.
"All I know is before Jon leaves here, he should be leaving his mark on this program," the UK coach said.
'Not a socialist'
Don Meyer, who retired with a coaching record of 923-324, brought a lifetime perspective to the ongoing shuffle of college teams in conferences as one of the guest speakers at the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches clinic last weekend.
"We're all disgusted, I know, with what's going on in the leagues," he told the coaches.
After his riveting speech, Meyer explained.
"It's just an example of greed, and the fact college athletics is a professional thing, now," he said.
Meyer noted the influence of TV money, particularly ESPN's ownership of the Texas Longhorn network, which convulsed the Big 12 Conference. What are other Big 12 athletic programs supposed to think when Texas hoards money from its own TV network.
"I'm not a socialist," Meyer said, "but you've got to be fair about it."
Money trumps all
Bellarmine Coach Scotty Davenport questioned the priorities of college commissioners. To his eye, the rush to maximize TV dollars comes at the expense of all other considerations. The considerations of one important segment seldom, if ever, gets mentioned, he said.
"To get away from any geographical bearings, we're getting away from people really important to these kids (athletes)," Davenport said. "The last persons considered are the parents of the kids."
Davenport and others noted the distances between schools in the mega-conferences. Parents of players in every sport must travel huge distances to watch their children compete.
For instance, the distance from Lexington to College Station, Texas, is 981.6 miles. That's a drive of almost 17 hours.
The trip from Columbia, S.C., to College Station is even longer: 1,068.9 miles (or a drive of almost 18 hours).
Spinning straw to gold
Morehead State Coach Donnie Tyndall touted his program's ability to spin gold out of seeming straw.
The most obvious example of player improvement is Kenneth Faried, a first-round draft choice who was not a top 150 high school prospect, Tyndall told the coaches.
DeMonte Harper, the player who made the winning shot against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament, increased his bench press from 155 to 285 pounds and added 40 pounds to his frame. He was named first team All-OVC, Tyndall said.
In 2010, Maze Stallworth finished his college career with 1,356 points. Not bad for a player who had no Division I or II offers coming out of high school, Tyndall said.
Money rush OK?
Butler Coach Brad Stevens seemed a sure bet to lament the rush for money. After all, a landscape of super conferences might exclude Butler and other so-called mid-major programs from a national tournament.
But, Stevens suggested the desire for money comes at the expense of other values.
"You can still be good at a lot of those other things, and do them well," he said. "But there's no doubt it's being driven by more opportunities (and) more openings to make money."
That's not necessarily a bad thing, Stevens said.
"One thing people have to realize is that can be a positive," he said of the rush for money. "Because those revenues are part of the student-athlete experience. So students will travel better. Students will stay at great places, have great experiences, play against great competition.
"The student-athlete experience is not being affected. It's actually being enhanced in a lot of ways."
Stevens went so far as to shrug at the possibility of mega-conferences excluding the Butlers of the basketball world from a national tournament.
"I don't think it's going to happen," he said before adding, "I'm not really coaching for that tournament. I'm in coaching to be on the practice court with our guys."
Renovate or rebuild?
Besides Mitch Barnhart (presumably), where are all the people who want to see Lexington and UK come up with a formula to build a new downtown basketball arena? A visit with those UK fans who came a day or two early to the camp-out for Madness tickets seemed a good place to find true believers in a new arena. Alas, the sentiment favored a renovation of Rupp Arena or simply leaving well enough alone.
John Riley, 36, a retail manager from Crothersville, Ind., favored a renovation of Rupp. "Because of the tradition," he said.
Marsha Poe, 53, a postal worker from Louisville, saw renovation as too radical.
"I'm for nothing," she said, "because they'll price me right out."
Diana McDonald, 62, a postal worker from Shepherdsville, said she was satisfied with Rupp Arena. She, too, said she feared a new arena would mean less access to game tickets for fans.
Tommy Mullins, 27, who lives in Monticello and works in sporting goods sales, wants UK to continue playing in Rupp.
"Why change?" he said. "It's a good arena. Why spend money they don't have to make an arena not much better?"
During his appearance at Georgetown College for its Interviews with Champions series, Tubby Smith recalled his first pre-season as Kentucky coach. His ranting about practice shortcomings led captains Jeff Sheppard, Allen Edwards and Cameron Mills to ask for a meeting.
"Coach, relax," they told Smith. "Things are going to work out. We're going to introduce you to the president."
The players all but predicted that UK would win the national championship, then take bows at the White House.
"You guys are crazy," Smith recalled telling the players. Then he added, "Sure enough, we met Bill Clinton."'
A crowd estimated at 750 nearly filled Georgetown's John L. Hill Chapel (capacity 900) to hear Tubby Smith interviewed by host Billy Reed. During a question-and-answer session with audience members, a young man identified himself as a Duke fan. After the crowd's audible disapproval eased, he asked Smith what it was like to coach against Mike Krzyzewski.
"When you have the success they've had, it just perpetuates itself," Smith said before adding, "I don't have much else to say about Duke."
The audience applauded.
To Rex Chapman. He turns 44 on Wednesday. ... To Sean Sutton. He turns 43 on Tuesday. ... To Mickie DeMoss. She turns 56 on Monday. ... To Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings. He turned 51 on Saturday. ... To Junior Braddy. He turns 40 on Tuesday. ... To Preston Lemaster. He turns 28 on Wednesday. ... To Sheray Thomas. He turns 27 on Tuesday.