Kentucky coach John Calipari recently conducted a marathon Q&A with reporters in Lexington in advance of the upcoming season. You can read a transcript from the entire session on CoachCal.com, but below are what I feel are the four most significant quotes and my take on each of them.
1. "You can’t do what I did last year and have eight kids on scholarship. You just can’t. ... You can’t save these kids from competition. I can’t save my own children from competition. That’s the United States. That’s what we’re about. ... There were times when Archie (Goodwin) needed to just – ‘Sit for a while, kid. I’m not mad at you. Just sit down.’ We couldn’t’ do it. I did it and I looked for a minute and I went, oh my gosh, go back in. You can’t do it that way."
My reaction: Missteps are understandable when you're attempting to win in a fashion nobody else has before, but it's important for Kentucky that Calipari appears committed to never having a roster as shallow as last year's again. The Wildcats had few logical backup options at several key positions during last year's disappointing 12-loss season, a problem both because it assumes no injuries or recruiting blunders and it fosters complacency among guys who feel guaranteed playing time. With the exception of point guard, where backup options to Andrew Harrison are slim, Kentucky shouldn't have that problem this season. In fact, the concern will be more whether chemistry issues arise when two or three highly touted frontcourt players find themselves playing sparingly against quality foes on the schedule.
2. "I’m going to tell you who is better than I thought he was is Dakari Johnson. His body is fat I think seven percent, so now all of a sudden he is dunking everything around the rim, where before, the question mark we all had was he plays well below the rim, (but) how do we do this? All of a sudden I’m sitting there watching him and all the stuff we’re doing, and he’s easily dunking balls now. He’s one of those bigs that we’ve had to play against that puts his body on you and you have to do something. One guy can’t do it. So he’s better than I thought, and that’s really going to challenge Willie."
My reaction: If Johnson truly is more capable of contributing immediately than Calipari expected, then that's great news for Kentucky. It gives the Wildcats a backup center who is capable of spelling Willie Cauley-Stein for 12-18 minutes per game or even more if Cauley-Stein were to suffer an injury. What I wonder, however, is whether Calipari went out of his way to rave about Johnson publicly in order to motivate Cauley-Stein. There's no better way to challenge a returning starter and future first-round draft pick than to intimate that his playing time is in jeopardy.
3. "What happened two years ago is Michael [Kidd-Gilchrist] dragged us to that level as a team. And that’s what I’m asking [Julius Randle] to do. Forget about everything else. Just do that right there and drag us. We’ll help you with all the other stuff. You don’t lose that. ... That’s a skill. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got drafted number two on that skill. It wasn’t any other skill. It was that skill. ... I don’t want to say he’s better than Michael. Michael, there’s stuff I’ve seen Michael do that I couldn’t believe human beings could do. But this kid, he’s his own guy. He’s 6-9, 250, nimble and he’s tough."
My reaction: Earlier in the interview, Calipari described Randle as a "6-9 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist." Needless to say, that's frightening for opponents. By all accounts, Randle is more naturally gifted than Kidd-Gilchrist. If he also has Kidd-Gilchrist's tougness, motor and energy, he has a chance to be very, very special. And if Kentucky can feed off Randle the way the 2011-12 national title team did Kidd-Gilchrist, then the Wildcats also have a chance to be very, very special.
4. "[Marcus Lee] and I talked the other day and he was in the office and I said, 'Look, you just keep being you.' I said, 'What do you do well?' He said, 'I defend, I block shots, I run the court.' Do that. We’ll figure out your offense. You just do that. So we’re playing and doing drills one-on-one-on-one with the bigs and he’s there. He gets scored on and didn’t try to block it and I go, 'Didn’t you tell me you block shots?' 'Yeah.' 'Well then block it. You’re just standing there. Go block every shot. Go try to rebound every ball. I’m not asking you to be Dakari. Guess what? Dakari can’t be you. Just be you.' So in time he’s going to be really good. And these practices, he wants to learn, he wants to get better. He’s a guy that wants to be in this kind of environment. He’ll be fine."
My reaction: This one isn't hard to interpret. Calipari is publicly and privately preparing Lee for the possibility that his playing time will be scarce as a freshman. In a frontcourt that features returning starters Alex Poythress and Cauley-Stein and highly touted freshmen Johnson, Randle, Lee and James Young, somebody is probably going to have to sit more than they'd like. Lee knew that was the risk when he committed to Kentucky over Cal, opting to compete for playing time against McDonald's All-Americans rather than start immediately for his hometown school. The gamble may eventually pay off for Rivals.com's No. 19 recruit, but it sounds like he'll have to be patient.