UK Men's Basketball

Calipari says 'shared sacrifice' key for new crop of Kentucky stars

The Kentucky men's basketball coaching staff, from left, assistant John Robic, outgoing assistant Orlando Antigua, head coach John Calipari and assistant Kenny Payne, was rewarded for the team's post-season success.
The Kentucky men's basketball coaching staff, from left, assistant John Robic, outgoing assistant Orlando Antigua, head coach John Calipari and assistant Kenny Payne, was rewarded for the team's post-season success. Herald-Leader

Last season's struggles can help Kentucky take on the challenge of super-sized expectations for 2013-14, Coach John Calipari told reporters Wednesday.

Buoyed by a mega recruiting class that includes six McDonald's All-Americans, Kentucky looks to rebound from a 2012-13 season that ended with a first-round NIT loss at Robert Morris.

"There were many things that happened that were good last year," Calipari said in reference to individual player improvement. "Part of last season was the beginning of success for this coming year."

Calipari preached patience as he tries to build a team from a roster that includes eight highly decorated freshmen and five holdover veterans. By that count, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson will return to next year's team as scholarship players. The process of transforming a collection of celebrated players into a functioning unit begins Monday with what the UK coach called a "two-day retreat" for himself and the staff.

"What we're about to undertake has never been done before, trying to put a team together like this," Calipari said. "It takes time. There's a learning curve. There's a galvanizing process. And you know what? We're going to have to be patient."

Echoing a familiar refrain from past seasons, Calipari spoke of the possibility of "ugly" basketball early next season, perhaps through January.

"We'll have a talented team," he said before adding, "They need (to be) coached. Each individual player needs (to be) coached. They need to be taught the level of commitment, the intensity. The will to win has to come out."

Initially, Calipari suggested he was unaware of the 2013-14 season being more coronation than competition for Kentucky. "I'm not hearing that at all," he said. "But I can imagine that's out there."

He playfully — and sarcastically — attributed such talk to those "rooting for us to do well."

But Calipari embraced the notion of next season's UK team facing what could be considered championship-or-bust pressure. In the past, he's thought out loud about one of his teams achieving a 40-0 record someday.

"Chasing perfection, greatness, things that have never been done in the history of the game," he said. "People say, 'Pressure!' It wakes you up a little earlier in the morning. I don't mind a little pressure. I had it my whole career. I had the gun to my head for 20-some years. And you know what? I'm at my best when the gun is at my head versus I'm OK, I can kick back. I'm not as good.

"And you know what? The players are the same."

Calipari cautioned against the kind of pressure that places utmost importance on each and every game.

"But you're chasing greatness," he said. "What's wrong with that?"

Nerlens Noel's season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament effectively ended Kentucky's chase for relevance on the national stage last season. But even before Noel crumpled to the floor at Florida in mid-February, Calipari tried repeatedly to instill zeal, resolve and toughness in the team.

He spoke confidently of UK possessing those qualities when his next freshman-oriented team plays next season.

"The alpha males that we didn't have a year ago, I think we have," the UK coach said. "Two years ago, we didn't have one bad practice. Not one. Last year we had about five good practices."

Calipari dismissed the notion of Kentucky having too many alpha males next season.

"We don't have as many as you think," he said. "This team will have, maybe, two."

Calipari cited the UK team of 2011-12 as an example of more than one alpha male not hindering success.

"Different guys can lead at different points of the year," he said. "When you don't have alpha males at all ... you never have the kind of success you want."

When asked about the lessons he learned from last season, Calipari answered quickly.

"First of all, you have to have more than eight scholarship players," he said. "You may ask, why I did that. Because I was trying to protect players in the program. What you learn is you can't protect players. You can't protect them from competition."

Calipari never mentioned departed point guard Ryan Harrow by name. But Harrow seemed to fit the description.

"I don't have any regrets when I gave guys more than one chance to make it and it hurt our team. ... Guys got a full season to prove themselves."

Calipari sounded a one-for-all note. "More than any team I've had, shared sacrifice is going to matter with this group," he said.

In a sense, Calipari extended the idea of sacrifice to fans. Winning can fall behind an individual player's aspirations.

"If I'm going to err, it's going to be on the side of a player," Calipari said. Of maintaining the program's status, he added, "That's all good. But if it was your son, what would you want me to do?"

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