UK Men's Basketball

Calipari excited by challenge of new Kentucky roster

Kentucky Coach John Calipari
Kentucky Coach John Calipari

Recently, someone noted that plenty of question marks surround the University of Kentucky's basketball team going into the 2012-13 pre-season. Fortunately for anyone fretting about a lack of certainty meaning doubt or trepidation, the would-be puzzled person is the proven answer man for the Wildcats' program: Coach John Calipari.

"At times, the more information you get, the more confused you are," Calipari said in an early-September meeting with reporters embargoed for Oct. 1 release. "That's kind of where I am with this group. ...

"Some of the questions I had, now I have more questions."

Yet history suggests that UK's latest freshman-oriented team will provide plenty of excellent answers to any question.

Paradoxically, the one distinctive question hovering over the UK team, Calipari dismissed. Will an ongoing NCAA examination of freshman Nerlens Noel's status as a basketball wunderkind jeopardize his availability or even eligibility?

The UK coach shrugged off the NCAA's interest as a standard review of any top-level recruit. Noel's background, which includes a transfer to a prep school that angered fans of his hometown high school, raised red flags, Calipari said in an even, if not ho-hum, tone. A story by The New York Times earlier this year detailed how a budding star like Noel can attract, uh, people that the NCAA believes merit investigation.

Calipari and Kentucky have plenty of experience upon which to judge NCAA action.

Two years ago, the NCAA ruled then-star UK freshman big man Enes Kanter ineligible because he received improper compensation when playing for a professional team in his native Turkey. No such serious question has surfaced in the Noel case.

Three years ago, the NCAA made then-superstar UK freshman John Wall sit out two games (one an exhibition) and repay a few hundred dollars of expenses for a questionable recruiting trip. But Calipari made even that kind of slap on the wrist seem unlikely for Noel.

"They go through the process," he said of NCAA investigators. "But it's a review. So we feel confident. We feel pretty good about it."

Noel echoed the don't-worry-be-happy sentiment.

"Nah, I'm not concerned at all," he said. "It's not something I have to worry about. I have to worry about games on the court and maintaining my grades and just working hard."

When asked if he wasn't even 1 percent worried, Noel said, "Nah."

Meanwhile, Calipari listed several on-court questions that would preoccupy the X-and-O portion of his mind, if not cause concern. Those questions include:

■ The already well-chronicled option of featuring a Twin Towers lineup of freshmen Willie Cauley-Stein and Noel.

■ A three-headed skyline of a frontcourt that joins another freshman with size, forward Alex Poythress, with the towers.

■ How much to play freshman Archie Goodwin at point guard. Calipari likened him to Tyreke Evans, a freshman who started at shooting guard for Memphis before finding his niche at the point.

■ Can UK get Poythress to play as hard as last year's ever-ready Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? In basketball parlance, can Poythress's "motor" be made to run as hot and as steady as MKG?

■ Can Julius Mays, the transfer from Wright State, be a reliable perimeter shooter even if he plays significantly fewer minutes than he's played previously?

■ Can a replacement be found for Darius Miller, who provided telling experience and a knack for clutch play off the bench last season? That one, Calipari ventured a tentative answer. "I don't even know if we'll have that role," he said. "This team is going to be different."

■ How will UK play offensively? How will UK play defensively? Of the latter, Calipari threw out the idea of a zone, if only by reflex, and then assessed that possibility as "slim and none." Still, he thought aloud of a 2-3 zone with freshman big men on the wings. Or a 3-2 with those "bigs" on the back line. It was September and ideas fell like autumn leaves off a tree.

Sounding doubt-free, Calipari said that:

■ He wanted the presumed point guard, third-year sophomore Ryan Harrow, to attack the basket well enough to be considered "the best layup shooter in the SEC."

■ No one should compare Noel to last season's star freshman big man, Anthony Davis. Both have "quick-twitch" reflexes that are indispensable to a player wishing to excel, the UK coach said before adding, "They're totally different."Davis knew how to play hard, while Noel is learning that reality, Calipari said. Plus, veteran teammates allowed Davis to ease into a dominant role.

■ UK's future schedules probably will include annual neutral-site games against Duke, and, if the roster allows, perhaps another high-profile opponent on a one-game basis.

■ UK won't have to worry about the pressure to repeat as national champion. Although he spoke with Alabama football coach Nick Saban for an hour about the enviable task of coming off a championship season, Calipari said, "This is different here because it's a brand new team. I mean, it's not like, 'OK, they won it. How are you going to guard against complacency?' How about we change the whole team?"

In the past three seasons, Calipari took essentially new teams to the Elite Eight, Final Four and then national championship. He reminded reporters how close UK has come to three straight titles: the 0-for-20 three-point shooting start against West Virginia sunk the Cats in a 2010 region finals, and Connecticut's Kemba Walker proved too much to overcome in the 2011 national semifinals.

"This is one it's not going to be as easy as it looks to figure stuff out," Calipari said of the UK team for 2012-13. "How we play. That will be the challenge of it, but that's exciting.

"People say to me, 'Doesn't it drive you crazy to have a new team?' No, it's exciting."

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