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JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Basketball Season-Opening Memories During John Calipari Era At Kentucky


Basketball season-opening memories.

And John Calipari hasn't lost a single season opener at Kentucky.

If UK, as expected, defeats Albany Friday night at Rupp Arena, it would give Calipari a glossy 7-0 mark in season openers.

Since Calipari became the Wildcats' head coach in 2009, all of Kentucky's season openers have been a breeze with numerous blowouts over cupcakes with the exception of 2012 when it took former walk-on Jarrod Polson's 10 points and his clinching free throws to edge Maryland 72-69 in Barlays Center Classic in Brooklyn.


Looking back, it's sure interesting to point out Calipari's first opposing coach to face at Kentucky was Donnie Tyndall, who years later showed up at Tennessee for one year before he got fired.

It was Tyndall's Morehead club which played as a victim of the Wildcats, losing by a respectable score of 75-59 in 2009. The highlight of the game, which marked the beginning of the memorable John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins-Patrick Patterson campaign, was rookie star Eric Bledsoe who gunned in 24 points. Patterson added 20 points and 12 rebounds.

Calipari said Bledsoe was the difference in the game.

"He's just a gamer," said the coach after the contest. "One of the guys said to me 'He's tired' and I said 'I know but he's better than most guys that are fresh so I'll leave him in.' "

As you may recall, Wall had to sit out the opener due to NCAA's amateur rules, but the Wildcats still came out on top.

Bledsoe, a point guard who committed seven turnovers in playing without Wall, said he looked forward to having Wall back in the next game.

"It'll be great," said Bledsoe, who was not 100 percent healthy due to an ankle injury suffered earlier. "It'll take pressure off of us individually. I didn't expect us to both start but it worked out good. There was a little pressure on me because I had to bring the ball up every possession and couldn't take a break."

Said Tyndall, "If John Wall is better than him (Bledsoe), then wow. He is something else, and when he started making jump shots in the second half, he completely took the game over. He was making teammates better and getting fouled. He turned it over a little bit, but Coach Calipari is brilliant letting him play so he can make his teammates better."

As history will show, that 2009-10 Kentucky team advanced all the way to the NCAA East Reginal finals where the Cats dropped to Cal's good friend, Bob Huggins, and his West Virginia team 73-66. UK finished at 35-3 and the Big Blue Nation, after four straight seasons of double-digit losses, became excited once again.

Then Coach Cal and the Cats opened the 2010-11 campaign against East Tennessee State, which was coached by ex-UCLA boss Gene Bartow's son, Murry Bartow (who was fired in 2015 after three NCAA tournament trips in 12 years at the Bucs helm).

It took another set of freshmen to help UK to a 23-point victory over ETSU. This time the Cats were led by rookies Terrence Jones (25 points, 12 rebounds), Doron Lamb (20 points) and Brandon Knight (17 points, five assists). The Wildcats hit 13 of 26 three-point field goals.

With his famous dad sitting on the front row behind the East Tennessee State bench, Murry Bartow wasn't able to take advantage of his team's experienced players to defeat the youthful Wildcats. Calipari's team simply had too much raw talent with three star freshmen doing most of the damage in stopping Bartow's Buccaneers.

"The three freshmen played great," said Bartow, whose squad also dropped to Kentucky 100-71 in the 2010 NCAA tournament in the previous spring. "Jones, Knight and Lamb all played great games, not like your typical freshman games. They all played fantastic."

Commented Calipari, "I thought Brandon had a great floor game. I thought he ran the team, he was in control. He went when he should have, he shot when he should have. That is amazing after the practices we've had.

"Doron made shots, made plays, three assists, one turnover. I thought he defended almost as well as I've seen him defend this year. Terrence, other than a bad start to the second half, the first two or three minutes of the second half, really competed. Basically what he did is competed....He had no turnovers, which is incredible."

Because of their strong Memphis connections, the Bartows and Calipari are friends. (The elder Bartow passed away in 2012.)

Kentucky, by the way, had to play without future 6-11 NBA standout Enes Kanter, a product from Turkey who was just declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA. Kanter watched the opener from the Wildcat bench.

"One, I respect the NCAA's decision," said Calipari. "I don't agree with it, but I respect the decision because it's a hard decision.

"I will say this. Enes Kanter is like my son or any of your sons out there. He got nothing from anybody except his dad, and his dad did not do anything wrong. His dad did all the things he thought were going to make sure his son stayed an amateur. No one can argue the point that this kid wanted to be an amateur, and so did his father.

"And I feel bad. So we're looking at the appeal and thinking that, you know, people will look at this in a common sense way and say, 'You know what, the kid deserves better than this.'

"That's all I'm going to say. If you ask me another question, I'm not going to answer it."

As it turned out, Kanter didn't play college basketball and is now with Billy Donovan's Oklahoma City Thunder after four NBA seasons.

Without Kanter, UK went on to finish at 29-9 with a surprising run to the Final Four, losing to Connecticut by one point in Houston.

The following season of 2011-12 began with the UK-Marist matchup. Rookie Anthony Davis helped the Wildcats come up with a 50-point blowout victory in the opener, hitting 23 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. The 6-10 youngster from Chicago also blocked five shots and had three assists. Remarkably, Davis did all of that in only 23 minutes of action.

After the contest, Davis was asked if there is any extra pressure playing for the tradition-rich Kentucky program.

"There is a lot of pressure because all the fans are expecting a national championship," said Davis, who was excited about wearing his UK jersey in his first collegiate game. "But we will play every game like it's our last and we will keep that winning streak alive."

And Davis and his talented teammates -- which included freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, and senior Darius Miller -- became the darlings of Commonwealth, winning the 2012 national title in New Orleans with a stunning 38-2 mark.

After Big Easy, the 2012-13 Wildcats, led by freshmen Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel, barely got by against Maryland, winning by three points on a neutral court. It turned out to be Calipari's closest season-opening contest at UK.

Kentucky also continued to struggle throughout the winter and went through Noel's season-ending injury. The Cats went to the NIT in Moon Township, Penn., where they were upset by Robert Morris 59-57, finishing with a 21-12 worksheet.

The 2013-14 season opener was much better for the Wildcat faithful, who saw UK freshman Julius Randle pour in 23 points and snatch 15 rebounds in an 89-57 victory over UNC Asheville.

Despite Randle's outstanding Kentucky debut performance, Calipari felt like the 6-9 player could have done more.

"I got on Julius," said the mentor. "He had 15 rebounds but he could have had 20, 21, 22 rebounds, so why not do that."

That up-and-down 29-11 squad -- led by rookie group of Randle, James Young along with the Harrison twins -- surprisingly went on to advance to the national championship game, losing to Connecticut 60-54 in Arlington, Texas.

Now moving on last year's opener against Grand Canyon when the Cats featured tons of future NBA players. The result? UK outrebounded the visitors 51-21 and had a balanced scoring attack to dominate coach Dan Majerle's Antelopes 85-45, a 40-point margin en route to a "once-a-lifetime" season record of 38-1.

As for this Friday night's matchup with New York's Albany of America East Conference, the Great Danes are still a pretty good team coming off last year's 24-9 NCAA Tournament squad. The 24-9 mark posted by Albany is the program's best-ever winning percentage (.727) in history. The Great Danes, who have played in three straight NCAA tourney, return four starters, including senior guards Peter Hooley of Australia and Evan Singletary, members of preseason all-league team.

Nevertheless, the 2015 season opener should go down in UK hoops history with another victorious blowout. Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com


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