Yes, it’s hard to believe that John Calipari is beginning his second decade at Kentucky. Yes, it’s been that long since he arrived on campus in 2009 to take over the coveted head coaching job at UK.
Despite the constant turnover of “one-and-done” standouts over the years, the 60-year-old Calipari once again is expected to have another very good basketball team in Lexington this winter with the Cats among the Top 5 in many preseason rankings. The Nashville-based Athlon Sports preseason yearbook has UK at No. 3, behind No. 1 Michigan State and No. 2 Duke. Athlon Sports also picked Wildcat sophomore Ashton Hagans as preseason SEC’s top defensive player.
At UK’s annual Media Day festivities held on Tuesday, Calipari was in a jovial mood during the press conference and discussed nearly every topic imaginable, as expected, ranging from the California law (which would allow the college athletes to be compensated), his players, his son Brad (who transferred to Detroit Mercy), his wife Ellen and his Kentucky career.
Asked about the expectations after getting that so-called “lifetime” contract from UK this past spring, Calipari said, “Well, here's what I would say. I've been here 10 years. Kind of thinking back, it's been a pretty good run. So now going forward, this is the second tour. Let’s see what happens now. What happened for those 10 years are done. Final Fours, national champion, all the stuff, it's done.
“Now what happens in the next 10? How do we grow as a program? How do we keep getting better as a staff? As a coach, how do I keep leading better, communicating better, what do I do and forget with that. Let's move to this next tour. This next 10. So that's been my mentality. And whether it be in recruiting, where we go back and say, okay, what are some things that we can do different because what's happened is people kind of attack how we recruit and basically because I'm transparent in what we do and what we say. So now it's what do we do that's a little bit different in our approach. But I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited, I feel refreshed.
“I like this team, great group of kids, a little bit thin. Nine guys on scholarship playing. Dontaie (Allen) would be 10. I know we have (a limit of) 13, but I usually don't give 13. We usually have enough to practice with, we're a little light. But some of the best teams I've coached weren't full rosters. You have to be in the game (to improve) and it helps them, their own mentality, especially young kids.”
Calipari added there is one thing or two that he doesn’t really know about the 2019-20 edition of the Wildcats.
“Are we going to be physical enough? Because our defense on the ball should be unbelievable. I think we're long enough that other positions, if you try to beat us to the rim, we can block shots. That's the sign of a really good defensive team,” he said. “Now, if you get roughed up, can you still play, can you still perform? Do we have the physical, mental toughness? So the main thing for me will be, how do we rebound and how tough are we physically?”
The lengthy news conference at Memorial Coliseum ended in a laughter when Calipari was asked if he got his wife the automatic trash can that he tweeted about recently.
“The automatic trash can, it was unbelievable, you just see this thing go right down, then it goes and parks, and it opens. It's unbelievable,” said Coach Cal. “Also, when we were at UMass, it snowed. So she was shoveling and we had gravel. So I blacktopped it so that she could shovel easier (smiling). You have to think of your wife. I mean you have to.”
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It would have been awfully nice to see 6-10, 241-pounder Kerry Blackshear Jr. play at Kentucky.
Instead, the Orlando, Fla., product, who was considered the top graduate transfer this past summer, decided to return home and signed with Florida after considering several schools such as UK and Tennessee, among others.
Before arriving at Gainesville, Blackshear was a two-year starter who averaged 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds during his four years at Virginia Tech. The second-team All-ACC performer led the Hokies to a Sweet Sixteen trip last season.
He is a major reason the Gators will be battling the league favorite Wildcats for SEC championship this winter. And some early polls even have coach Mike White’s club ranked among the Top 5.
At least two preseason yearbooks that I have seen have selected Blackshear as conference’s preseason player of the year. Even though the Gators have only four players from last season's 20-16 squad which reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, they have a nice band of talented rookies, including two McDonald’s prep All-Americans in Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann in addition to Blackshear. And 6-foot-5 point guard Andrew Nembhard, who finished fifth in SEC in assists last year, returns for his sophomore year.
During last week’s Media Day at Florida, the Gators coach was asked about the fan excitement and expectations surrounding his hoops program.
“We've got a ton of work to do,” said White. “I don't blame whoever is out there saying we've got a chance to be pretty good. It is what it is; we've got a pretty good roster. It's a good problem to have. That said, we haven't even been through a practice yet. We have no idea who's going to start, who's going to score for us, who's going to be our best defensive player.
“All the ingredients that exist in really good teams remain to be seen with this team. Toughness, maturity, experience, who's going to lead us, consistency, work ethic. I could go on and on and on. Do I like our roster? Yeah.
“But we've got a lot to work with. I'm not going to dodge that. I like our roster on paper.”
On Blackshear, White said, “He's very talented. He's smart. He understands the game at a high level. He's tough. He's stronger than he looks. He looks strong, but he's really strong, and he's difficult to defend. He's a good defender as well. He gives us an opportunity to play a little bit differently offensively than we've played here in that we've struggled to score on the interior. We've struggled at times to get to the foul line, to throw it in the post. He's the best passing big (man) that I've coached. He's good at a lot of things.”
By the way, Kentucky and Florida will meet in the last game of the regular season on Saturday, March 7 in Gainesville. That showdown could well determine the SEC championship.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com 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.