When Kentucky big man Willie Cauley-Stein called himself a veteran Monday night, he wiggled his fingers to gesture quotation marks.
Why the qualifier?
"I'm just a sophomore," he said after UK's 95-72 exhibition victory over Montevallo. "I'm still only 20 years old. We're playing guys 22, 23 years old. They're veterans. And you're considered a veteran, and I just turned 20."
Quotation marks could be placed around all the observations and opinions already formed or sure to be espoused over the next two months. As John Calipari has said repeatedly since becoming UK coach in 2009, he does not want to see a team in November playing like it should in January or February. All is prelude to a better, brighter near future.
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So no surprise that he tapped the brakes on any enthusiasm generated by blowout margins or authoritative individual moves in exhibition victories over Transylvania and Montevallo.
"We're still not a good team offensively or defensively yet," he said. "... When I say team, one guy is breaking down. Two guys are breaking down. One guy forgets where to go. One guy holds the ball too long. Instead of pass-pass-cut-cut-drive, it's pass-try to drive."
In addition to the calendar forming a glass ceiling, an injury at a key position affects Kentucky's play. A knee bruise sidelined point guard Andrew Harrison for both exhibitions. Likening the point guard to a football team's quarterback, Calipari expressed hope that UK will have its signal caller for Friday's regular-season opener against UNC Asheville.
Meanwhile, UK moved Aaron Harrison back to his familiar shooting guard position and made senior Jarrod Polson its starting point guard.
Aaron Harrison spoke of the move to shooting guard as "really relaxing.
"I get to run the floor a lot more (and) not worry about getting the ball up the court," he said. "Playing point guard is a learning experience. I just feel more comfortable playing on the wing."
Calipari has spoken about the delicate balance a point guard must master between attacking the defense and distributing the ball to the right teammate at the right time. The UK coach isn't shy about, shall we say, sharing his insights into how to optimize the opportunities to attack or distribute.
"He definitely says something to the point guard every play," said Aaron Harrison, who distributed the credit for his gaudy seven-assist/no turnover stat line to good-shooting teammates.
Calipari offered a mixed review of Kentucky's victory over Montevallo, a program with a history of success on the Division II level. The effort was better than against Transy.
"I thought Alex (Poythress) played as well as I've seen him play," the UK coach said. "He went after balls. But, again, I could go back and tell you there were five possessions that he gave up on. But that used to be 15."
Julius Randle caused the crowd to ooh and aah by freeing himself on a drive with a 360-degree spin to his left.
"Well, I don't like the spin because I think people are going to play the spin," Calipari said. "I'd rather him just go to his right hand and shoot it. If you miss it, we'll tip-dunk it. ... When he drives right, everybody gets in the lane because he's going to spin, and he'll run you over."
That seemed to echo the live-and-learn theme of the season's first two months.
Cauley-Stein put quotation marks around his veteran status in explaining why he apparently received an ultimatum from Calipari at halftime. The coach wanted a greater effort to block shots and limit easy scores for the opponent.
"If they're shooting layups, why should I put you out on the floor?" Cauley-Stein said Calipari asked him.
To which, Cauley-Stein told reporters, "He's right."
Cauley-Stein notched five of his six blocks in the second half.
"I think I get caught up (in) it's not long since last year," Cauley-Stein said. "You kind of had to worry, is somebody going to have my back if I leave (a position to block a shot)? This year, it's not like that. There is going to be somebody to have your back."
That kind of help will make a big difference, Cauley-Stein said. "That's when our defense is going to skyrocket."
UNC Asheville at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m. Friday | What: UK's season opener | TV: FS South
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