Kentucky’s James Young listens to a reporter’s question during NCAA basketball media day Tuesday in Lexington, Ky.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach John Calipari stops just short of calling his latest talented freshman group the best ever because previous classes have featured top NBA draft picks and won an NCAA championship.
This class has yet to even play a game at Kentucky.
Still, Calipari hinted Tuesday his view could quickly change.
His eight-player freshman contingent includes McDonald’s All-Americans Dakari Johnson, twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young, Julius Randle and Marcus Lee. In-state players Dominique Hawkins, Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball, and Derek Willis round out this latest crop.
Time will whether they can match the achievements of the 2011-12 national championship or past Calipari squads that produced first team All-Americans such as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. They do present a scenario where he could start five freshmen.
“I’d like this to play out a little bit and look back, but I will tell you this team is deeper,” the coach said during media day, comparing them to his first squad in particular that just missed the Final Four in 2010.
The talent has expectations of Kentucky winning a ninth national title high — especially after the Wildcats went 21-12 last year and were upset in the NIT.
This Wildcat roster also has Calipari thinking of fulfilling his dream of coaching an unbeaten national championship team.
“For eight years I’ve said that before I retire I’d like to coach a team that goes 40-0,” Calipari said. “Will that happen? I don’t know. Every game we play, we play to win. ... You may not go 40-0, but you’re doing some special things.”
Kentucky seems to have all the ingredients to make a run.
The Wildcats return 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein and forward Alex Poythress, both of whom bypassed the NBA draft for another year of college experience. They could provide the veteran leadership missing last season as Kentucky stumbled out of the rankings after starting No. 3 with that duo, Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin, now in the NBA.
Then again, Calipari sees potential leaders in his newcomers, especially 6-foot-9 forward Julius Randle. The coach has referred to him as the “alpha beast” for his take-charge mentality but notes there are others ready to lead.
Players such as Lee, Willis and Young already have exceeded Calipari’s initial impressions. The 6-6 Young has shown more quickness than expected, a willingness to draw contact and a transition game that reminds the coach of Davis, who led Kentucky’s last title run along with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on a team that sent six players to the pros.
Still, these new Wildcats have a lot to learn. For now, Calipari is stressing a “fail fast” philosophy that urges players to get all their weaknesses out of their systems so there are no issues when Kentucky begins its nonconference schedule that includes date with Michigan State, North Carolina and in-state archrival and defending champion Louisville.
“We’re just learning from him,” said Young, who’s trying to master Calipari’s dribble-drive strategy. “We’re taking it day by day and just learning new things. ... The coaches have been there to help us when we have failed.”
Kentucky will need floor generals to maintain the squad’s focus, particularly with projections of a preseason No. 1 ranking, potentially going unbeaten while trying to capture a second national championship in three years.
Such expectations are nothing new for a Kentucky program that has thrived with talented freshmen under Calipari, but none have had quite the hoopla surrounding this class. Calipari’s challenge in choosing which five to play is a problem any coach would love to have.
“We know we have a talented team,” Andrew Harrison said. “It’s just a matter of playing together. You can’t really worry about expectations because they’re coming from people that have nothing to do with you or your teammates.
“I used to watch Kentucky whenever it was on TV, so I’m pretty aware of the tradition. But we can’t really compare ourselves to teams in the past. We have to be ourselves.”
Kentucky’s fervent fan base is certainly eager to see how the lineup and rotation will look. They get their first chance to see at Friday night’s sold-out Big Blue Madness at Rupp Arena.
Encouraging as practice has gone so far, Cauley-Stein has warned the freshmen that the regular season will be much different. He speaks from the experience of being on last season’s team that fell short of expectations, but sees a team very aware of what’s expected of them.
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