Published November 20, 2014
Kentucky coach John Calipari will be looking for a working rotation in the season opener against Maryland on Friday night.
The third-ranked Wildcats' latest group of top-level recruits will make its debut under New York's bright lights at the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn.
The coach who masterfully guided a Kentucky squad led by freshmen to the national championship last year doesn't know what to expect from this new group that includes guard Archie Goodwin, forwards Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress and center Willie-Cauley Stein.
Calipari wants to leave the Big Apple with a win, but he really wants the Wildcats to develop an identity and more team chemistry while they're in the city.
"We'll see if we're ready to beat a basketball team," Calipari said Thursday. "I'm just not sure; they're going to have to show me. We haven't done much situational work. Up eight (points), down eight, up three, down three. We just haven't had time.
"You can try to talk these guys and mush their minds by trying to go three-and-a-half hours a day, try to get everything in before you play. But we're just not there."
Complicating matters is the uncertain status of two transfers expected to contribute this season at point guard, sophomore Ryan Harrow and graduate student Julius Mays.
Neither practiced on Wednesday. Harrow battled the flu and Mays rested a hyperextended right knee injury sustained in Monday night's 74-28 exhibition victory over Transylvania.
Mays said after the game that the injury wasn't serious and insisted that he could play. Nonetheless, Calipari has Goodwin available to play the point after he showed good ball-handling skills in both exhibition wins.
"It's not like we won't have enough to play," Calipari said. "It's just limited players. We're starting to get down in numbers. In a game like that, with the excitement and the anxiety, guys can't play 40 minutes."
That's why Calipari just wants a few good minutes from reserves Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood.
Hood has recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that sidelined him for his sophomore season. Calipari said the 6-foot-7 guard has shown the ability to score from 3-point range but needs to develop more confidence shooting it.
Polson has the same potential and is yearning for the chances to show it.
"He's not going to be like the guy trying to get 30 points," Calipari said, "but he's got some size with him, got some toughness. He'll make open shots."
However, Kentucky's focus will be seeing how the freshmen perform against the Terrapins, keeping a close watch on Noel and 7-footer Cauley-Stein. They have played together and Calipari has used them separately with a number of combinations.
The coach has been encouraged by what he has seen from his big men — particularly the 6-foot-10 Noel, who said the biggest improvement in his game since arriving at Kentucky is his confidence.
"I know that I can go to the hoop and score from the block," he said.
Noel's freshmen classmates — Goodwin and Poythress — have seen the more demanding side of Calipari.
But have played well in spurts with Goodwin showing off his quickness and shooting ability and Poythress displaying power and versatility. But Calipari is trying to build up both players' stamina, particularly Poythress — who has seemed lackadaisical at times.
"I know what he's trying to do," Poythress said of his coach's barbs. "He's just trying to get me to play hard and work hard every day."
And not just Poythress.
Calipari is looking for consistent play from his entire team.
In their two exhibition wins against Northwood and Transylvania, the Wildcats showed lots of offensive promise when they weren't turning the ball over. On defense, they were lazy at times.
Calipari said those things can't happen against Maryland.
The Terrapins are coming off a 17-15 season and have recruited a top-20 class including Shaquille Cleare and Jake Layman. Maryland's prospects improved dramatically Wednesday when the NCAA declared Xavier (Ohio) transfer Dez Wells (9.8 points, 4.9 rebounds) eligible to play immediately after initially denying his appeal to waive the requirement that he sit out a year.
Wells was expelled from Xavier following sexual assault allegations that a grand jury declared unworthy of prosecution. The sophomore visited Kentucky's campus early this fall before enrolling at Maryland in September.
Calipari isn't really worried about Wells, he has other concerns.
He is anxious to see how a roster with no returning starters and six new faces responds against high-level competition. Kentucky's first two games against Maryland and No. 8 Duke serve as good measuring sticks.
"This is why I say we play these kinds of games early," Calipari said. "I'd rather have had a game or two under our belts before we played it, but the reality of it is this team is so young, let's learn right away.
"Here's where we are. Here's where we're not. Don't get crazy."