UK Recruiting

All-Americans promise hard-fought battles for playing time at Kentucky

Mike Flaherty, coach of the McDonald's All-American West team, talked to his team during a break in the second half. The West team won, 110-99.
Mike Flaherty, coach of the McDonald's All-American West team, talked to his team during a break in the second half. The West team won, 110-99. Associated Press

CHICAGO — A little unsolicited advice for John Calipari: Invest in a referee's shirt and some boxing gloves.

That might be the only way to settle what's about to go down in the Joe Craft Center.

Based on what Calipari's six McDonald's All-Americans have been saying this week, the UK coach will have his hands full during next season's practices, which are already being billed as knock-down, drag-out auditions for playing time among a young bunch of highly motivated players with through-the-roof expectations.

"With people that hate losing, there's bound to be fights," said forward Marcus Lee. "The big men and the guards — we just go at it so hard. Especially during practice. I wouldn't doubt that there would be fights."

Just to be clear: Lee is predicting actual, physical fights. And he's not alone.

Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison and Julius Randle — three players considered to be as competitive as anyone in the country — concurred with their future teammate.

"Yeah, I can see that happening," Randle said. "Just because everybody that's going in there is a competitor, and if you hate to lose I can see it. It happens all the time.

"Just make sure you're prepared when you step out on the court, make sure you're a unit. We're going to work hard. We're going to bust our butts."

UK's 2013-14 roster could easily include 10 players that could start for a vast majority of Division I programs. Of course, only five can start for the Wildcats next season.

Which five get that honor will largely be decided on the practice floor.

Aaron Gordon won't be among those battling it out in the Craft Center next fall. The top-10 prospect committed to Arizona on Tuesday, picking those Wildcats over UK and two other schools.

But just a couple of minutes after announcing his decision to play in Tucson, Gordon was talking about the intensity level in Lexington.

"Each practice is going to be like an NBA-style practice," he said. "There's so many good players there. It forces you to step your game up. If you don't step your game up, you don't get playing time."

To a man, UK's six McDonald's All-Americans said the chance to play against one another — and the returning Wildcats — was a big factor in their decisions to commit to Kentucky.

When getting to the NBA is the dream, then improving your game is the goal. If competition breeds improvement, then UK's players will probably see more of it in practice.

"I think at this point it's, 'Who else do I want to play against in practice?' I feel like the practices are going to be a lot harder than the games at this point," Lee said. "Going against Randle and all these other major players, I think it's more, 'Who wants to fight to be on the court?' than it is, 'Who are we fighting against?'"

Calipari can be plenty loud in practices and in games, but he didn't have a vocal leader on the court this past season. There were no John Walls, Brandon Knights or Michael Kidd-Gilchrists to get teammates in line when things got tough.

Next season, he'll have the constantly yapping Harrison twins and the ever-intimidating Randle. And of, course, Calipari will surely get in his fair share of yelling.

Between the coach and the competition, the decibel level in the Craft Center is bound to be high once practices begin. And that's the way these Cats want it.

"I've never been afraid of someone yelling at me," Lee said. "I've never cried because someone yelled at me. When I see people get mad because a coach is yelling, I never really understand. I'm like, 'Isn't that what he's supposed to do?' That's his job. When coaches get paid trillions of dollars to coach, I expect them to yell."

Andrew Harrison doesn't expect any hard feelings to leave the practice facility. You go all out or you get yelled at. Then you move on to the next day.

"Off the court, all of us are great kids and we want to get along," he said. "It's a whole lotta love — a brotherhood."

So what happens on the practice floor will stay on the practice floor. But UK's next point guard reserves the right to bust your butt while you're there.

"If you don't come to play, you're gonna get killed," Harrison said. "I just want everybody to keep that in mind."

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