UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Calipari's ultimate chance to show talent trumps experience

Willie Cauley-Stein, left, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel bring lots of talent, but no collegiate experience, to the new season.
Willie Cauley-Stein, left, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel bring lots of talent, but no collegiate experience, to the new season. Herald-Leader

This pre-season, John Calipari was asked how he has managed to wrest so much success out of such youthful teams during his three prior seasons at Kentucky.

"What I've said before, if I had my choice between experience and talent, I'm going to take talent," Calipari said.

Even by Calipari-era standards, the 2012-13 Kentucky Wildcats are unusually bereft of players with meaningful experience at Kentucky.

Departed from the team that in April claimed UK's eighth NCAA title are 93 percent of the scoring, 86 percent of the rebounding, 96 percent of the assists and 95 percent of the blocked shots.

Back is not a single player who has ever started a game for Kentucky.

While men's basketball at Kentucky has become synonymous with the one-and-done freshman — the Cats having sent eight such players into the NBA Draft in the past three seasons — each of Calipari's first three Kentucky teams nevertheless were far more experienced than this.

In 2009-10, the John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins freshman class had junior standout Patrick Patterson to rely on. The 6-foot-9 Patterson entered his third season at UK having made 59 career starts and averaged 17.3 points and 8.6 rebounds. Even senior reserves Ramon Harris (53 career starts) and Perry Stevenson (41) had veteran moxie to provide if needed.

The following season, what became Calipari's first Final Four team at Kentucky featured freshmen stars Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. But that team did not gel until late in the season when senior Josh Harrellson and juniors Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins stepped to the forefront.

Last year, as splendid as freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and, eventually, Marquis Teague turned out to be, the Cats had an experienced nucleus in the senior Miller (71 career starts entering 2011-12) and "veteran" sophomores Jones (35 career starts entering the season) and Lamb (28.4 minutes a game as a freshman).

This season, for the first time, Calipari has no core of players with experience playing at Kentucky to mix in among the hyped newcomers.

Sophomore big man Kyle Wiltjer, last year's seventh man while averaging 11.6 minutes and 5 points a game, is now the player with the most experience in a Kentucky uniform.

"That's kind of weird," Wiltjer said of being UK's veteran presence. "But I have already had a year of making it (to the national championship), so I have the experience of it. I'm just kind of sharing it with the guys, the experiences of how we can learn from (last year)."

There is some "hidden experience" on the current Kentucky roster. Two seasons ago at North Carolina State, point guard Ryan Harrow played in 29 games and started 10.

Last year, he practiced every day against a national championship team while sitting out as a transfer at UK. "I learned what Coach Cal wanted out of his point guards," Harrow said of his redshirt season. "How he wanted us to be vocal and how he wanted us to play."

Fifth-year senior Julius Mays also has substantial college experience — the 6-foot-2 guard has played 88 college games with 34 combined career starts at North Carolina State and Wright State.

But he's never played a minute for Kentucky.

"When I was transferring here, (Calipari) made it very evident he wanted me to come here and knock shots down," Mays said. "I think that will be my biggest role."

The knock on Calipari's one-and-done approach to team-building (including from a sportswriter who looks remarkably like me) was that you could not make Final Fours or win NCAA championships when your roster churns so much every season.

Calipari has clearly proven that line of thinking wrong these past two years.

If Cal returns to the Final Four for a third straight time in 2012-13, it will be the ultimate demonstration that talent trumps experience.

This season, Kentucky really is starting over with all but a brand-new team.

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