John Clay

John Calipari says Kentucky basketball will be ugly early, and he’s probably right

Head basketball coach John Calipari answered a question during the University of Kentucky men’s basketball media day held in Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, October 12, 2017.
Head basketball coach John Calipari answered a question during the University of Kentucky men’s basketball media day held in Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, October 12, 2017. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Of all the things John Calipari said at Kentucky basketball’s Media Day on Thursday, here’s one line that stuck out.

“We’ve got a lot of questions to answer,” said the UK coach. “That’s why days matter for us.”

Will he have enough days?

This may not be Calipari’s best team since he became UK’s coach in 2009. It may not be his most athletic, or his fastest, or his smartest, or his tallest, or his most dangerous. It may, however, be his most interesting.

That’s because no one is quite sure what to make of Cal’s latest collection of talent. Yes, the Cats are among the top 10 teams in most pre-season rankings, even top five in more than a few. But you wonder whether the expectations aren’t based on the “Kentucky” name and Calipari’s reputation for recruiting top-shelf individual talent and molding it into a strong unit.

“We will be ugly early,” said the coach, whose first exhibition game is Oct. 27 against Thomas More. “That’s just how it’s going to be.”

Rupp Arena was filled with UK basketball fans as the men’s and women’s basketball teams held their first open practice of the season at the Big Blue Madness event in Rupp Arena on October 13.

I don’t think he’s sandbagging. I think this team will struggle early as it tries to find its chemistry and identity. In fact, this team may have more struggles earlier than any team Calipari has coached in quite awhile.

Part of that has to do with youth. By ESPN’s measure, UK will be the least experienced team in all of college basketball in 2017-18. Wenyen Gabriel is the only returnee who made a significant contribution last year, and Gabriel’s minutes decreased down the stretch. Calipari is adept at molding young teams, but he’s never had to coach one this young.

We will be ugly early. That’s just how it’s going to be.

UK coach John Calipari

Still, there’s more to the uncertainty than that. There’s not a sure-fire, can’t-miss star like John Wall or Anthony Davis or Julius Randle or Karl-Anthony Towns on this team. Freshman forward Kevin Knox is the lone player on the roster who garners consistent lottery mentions in the various mock drafts. But there are questions about Knox’s game.

Hamidou Diallo, the redshirt freshman who arrived in January of last season, then practiced but did not play the rest of the way, is probably the most athletic player on the team. Diallo is ridiculously athletic. But aside from his time on the USA U19 team coached by Calipari, Diallo hasn’t played in a real game in almost a year. He’ll need to shake off some rust.

Calipari is not even sure who his point guard will be, which is another unusual development. In each of his previous eight seasons, the coach knew the identity of his floor general. He did have two in some cases (Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis 2014-15), but he knew who would start and who would come off the bench. Not this year.

Canadian rapper Drake made another appearance at Big Blue Madness in Rupp Arena. But he had a request this time: He wants to perform a free concert for UK students before the year ends.

The Jarred Vanderbilt injury has also complicated matters. The freshman from Houston suffered a foot injury during drills that required surgery. First reports predicted Vanderbilt’s college debut wouldn’t happen before January. Thursday, Calipari offered hope Vanderbilt’s return date could be sooner.

In the big picture, however, Vanderbilt was considered the team’s most versatile player. With Vanderbilt, said Calipari on Thursday, UK didn’t need to have a point guard on the floor at all times. Even at 6-foot-9, Vanderbilt is skilled enough to play the point. Also, said the coach, Vanderbilt may be the team’s best shot-blocker.

“I told (Jarred), you’re going to be fine, but this hurts us,” Calipari said.

Is there enough outside shooting? There’s another question. As Calipari correctly pointed out Thursday, perimeter shooting was a question mark on previous teams and everything turned out fine. “It’s not a problem,” said Gabriel on Thursday. “This team has good shooters.”

Meanwhile, the season opener Nov. 10 against Mark Pope and Utah Valley State will be here before we know it. Four days later, UK plays Kansas in the Champions Classic in Chicago.

“I took my foot off the panic button (Wednesday) after practice,” said Calipari, alluding to an encouraging workout. “I still got both hands on it, but my foot is no longer on it.”

And just remember, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.

UK women's basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell performs his dance routine at the 2017 Big Blue Madness event in Rupp Arena.

At Kentucky Basketball Media Day on Thursday, head coach John Calipari and players bragged on freshman Kevin Knox.

This summer, members of the New Orleans Pelicans worked out at UK and played pickup games against John Calipari’s freshmen. What was it like for Nick Richards to go up against DeMarcus Cousins?

UK basketball players Jarred Vanderbilt, Quade Green and Sacha Killeya-Jones talk about Vanderbilt's foot injury.

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