UK Recruiting

UK basketball: New and returning Cats have eyes only for national championship

Kentucky Coach John Calipari paused for instruction during practice Thursday. Calipari said he'd try to use a 10-man rotation when he could, "but this is not communism," he said.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari paused for instruction during practice Thursday. Calipari said he'd try to use a 10-man rotation when he could, "but this is not communism," he said. Herald-Leader

Earlier this preseason, Kentucky Coach John Calipari noted the possibility of a "watershed moment for college basketball." ESPN analyst Jay Bilas spoke of the chance of "something historic in this game."

In that context, winning the 2015 NCAA Tournament seems the least Kentucky can do in an upcoming season already thick with national championship-or-bust implications.

"Yeah, everybody feels that way," Alex Poythress said at UK's Media Day Thursday. "That if we don't win a national title, we'll be seen as a failure."

Not that such expectations intimidate a Kentucky team blessed with nine McDonald's All-Americans, seasoned veterans like Willie Cauley-Stein and Poythress, plus the annual addition of a stellar freshman class.

Start waxing the fire engines. The Cats are all but planning a victory parade next April.

"That's how confident we are," Poythress said. "And that's how bad we want to get there. Outside of practice, at the Lodge, we're always talking about it that way."

Sophomore Derek Willis, one of the 12 or so highly-gifted players who've forced Calipari to try to fashion platoons of substitutions, spoke almost casually about a national championship, something the storied program has only done eight times since the NCAA Tournament began in 1939.

"We have the talent to do it," he said. "I don't see why we wouldn't."

Of course, a team wins the national championship every year. That's not historic. But it can be memorable, as was Connecticut's triumph last April. Kentucky, which lost to the Huskies in the NCAA Tournament finals, certainly remembers.

"Right when we got back to the hotel, guys were talking about coming back and finishing what we started," Cauley-Stein said. "That's been the motive the whole time."

Cauley-Stein, who along with twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison surprised Calipari by deciding to return to Kentucky this season, reluctantly accepted the championship-or-bust label.

"I wouldn't say you have to win it all or it's a bust," he said before adding, "We set the bar for ourselves. It would end up being a bust just because we've been on a path to get back to the Final Four and the championship game."

Historic requires achievement on a scale rarely seen. In the heady days of mid-October, that, too, seemed within easy grasp.

"Yeah, I think we will," Willis said when asked about a historic season. "I don't see how teams will deal with us, really."

Cauley-Stein, a wizened veteran at 21, said that he and Poythress knew better than to embrace the notion of an undefeated season, which all Kentucky fans know hasn't been done since Indiana in 1975-76.

"40-0 is not realistic," Cauley-Stein said.

That sounded like quite a declaration given how freely the 40-0 talk flowed this time last year. Cauley-Stein recalled how the incoming freshmen last season all but expected a 40-0 record. Instead, UK slogged to a 22-9 regular-season record before an unexpected postseason rebirth fueled a Final Four run.

"After the season, we asked them, 'Did you really believe we were going to go 40-0?'" Cauley-Stein said. "They were, 'Yeah, honest to God, we really thought so.' I'm, like, 'You all really thought that. That's crazy. I never would have thought that.' When it came up, (I thought) you all are in for a rude awakening. Like this is tough. It's not going to be easy."

For all of Kentucky's wealth of talent, Cauley-Stein has not changed his mind. A 40-0 record remains out of reach.

"Oh, it's still the same," he said. "This thing is not going to be easy."

Even Calipari said Kentucky would "in all likelihood" lose a couple games.

Yet, history still beckons. The dictionary defines a watershed as an event that marks a turning point. Calipari said these Kentucky players can do such a thing by meshing as a unit, not getting in each other's way, ignoring the impulse to put personal NBA goals ahead of the team, winning a national championship and flooding next year's NBA Draft with first-round picks.

"But we're doing it at KENTUCKY!" said Calipari, almost shouting that last word as if to emphasize a historic reach for glory. "Not a place you can stub your toe five times, and it'll be fine. Under a glowing light that is this."

If it happens, that light might never have glowed brighter.

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