LEXINGTON, Ky. – Brandon Knight watched Kentucky play whenever he could last year.
He marveled at the playmaking of John Wall, the ferocity of DeMarcus Cousins and the blazing speed of Eric Bledsoe. They helped put Kentucky back on the basketball map, winning 35 games and the SEC title.
Impressed? Of course. Worried about trying to one-up last year's group of freshmen? Not exactly.
"You know what last year's team did, they were a good team," Knight said. "We're not really focusing on the past seasons. We're focusing on the now."
So is John Calipari.
This year the coach will have to rely heavily on another hotshot recruiting class — led by Knight, the nation's top-ranked prep point guard a year ago — if the Wildcats are to make another deep run in the NCAA tournament.
While Calipari allows comparisons between the two classes are inevitable, he has a message for those spend too much time debating the merits of one group over another: Don't bother, last year's group is going to win every time.
"Anybody compared to that group of kids, you're going to be on the short end," Calipari said during the team's media day on Thursday.
Wall and Cousins led a pack of five Wildcats who were selected in the first round of the NBA draft in June. Calipari called it a "once in a lifetime" deal.
"This is a totally different team," he said.
One that Calipari expects to find the going a little rough in the fall. Kentucky ripped off 19 straight wins and shot to the No. 1 ranking last year. He doesn't think that bagel in the loss column will last that long this time around.
"This is one of those teams that I look at, needs to get beat up a little bit early," he said.
There will be plenty of opportunities. Kentucky will play in the Maui Invitational in November along with Oklahoma, Virginia and Washington. Games against North Carolina, Notre Dame and Indiana loom in December.
It's a daunting task for a team trying to replace its top four scorers. Enter Knight, forward Terrence Jones and guards Doron Lamb, Stacey Poole and Jarrod Polson.
Along with — the Wildcats hope — center Enes Kanter.
The 6-foot-11 big man has been prohibited from participating in team activities until the NCAA determines his amateur status. Kanter spent time with a club team in Turkey in 2008-09 and the NCAA is reviewing whether he received more than the minimum benefits.
There is no timetable for when a decision will be rendered, and Kanter will almost certainly not participate in "Big Blue Madness" on Friday night.
Calipari declined to comment on Kanter's situation Thursday, though his players know they'd be better off if Kanter is allowed to suit up this year.
Knight believes the team can have a good season if Kanter doesn't play, but his presence "would make things easier."
"He's a bully down in the paint," Knight said.
One that may never don a Kentucky jersey, even though Calipari has no doubt Kanter is still an amateur. If Kanter can't play, Jones and junior college transfer Eloy Vargas will be called upon to provide the grit Calipari said the Wildcats had in ample supply a year ago.
The lengthy 6-8 Jones came to Kentucky because of Calipari's talent for turning talented high school players into NBA draft picks. Are there four first-rounders among this year's group? Maybe, maybe not. He's not really concerned about it. If the Wildcats win, opportunities will come.
"We're just going to play our way," he said. "Just because they did what they did last year hadn't really been done, doesn't mean we can't do it, even if we do it another way."
It will take more finesse and flawless execution than raw ability. Calipari says this year's team won't be nearly as deep and will rely more on determination than domination.
The margin for error is smaller. The SEC should be better. Though he's pledged to "undersell and over deliver" he knows it won't work.
"No high expectations," he said, stifling a laugh. "This year I really mean it."
He was kidding. He knows the expectations are the same at Kentucky no matter who is on the roster. It's why 22,000-plus will fill Rupp Arena on Friday night.
Last fall, Calipari turned "Big Blue Madness" into equal parts of glorified practice and rock concert. Rapper Drake showed up. Wall debuted his now infamous dance. The energy that had sagged during the turbulent Billy Gillispie era came back with a flourish.
Knight has no plans to dance on Friday. He says he didn't even dance at his prom. He'll save the showmanship for someone else. This group of Wildcats might not be as flashy the ones that ran roughshod over the SEC a year ago. That doesn't mean they can't win.
"I know banners don't get hung up unless they're national championship banners," he said. "I just plan to work hard and things will fall into place."