March 27, 2013
Kentucky's preseason media day was, as is usual with preseason media days, full of hope and optimism and excitement and potential.
Yeah, the road ahead would be challenging. It was another young team, even younger than any of John Calipari's first three. But, as he said, he liked his team. We liked his team, voting them No. 3 in the preseason. With a replenished cast of high school All-Americans ready to become the next wave of freshmen superstars, why would this year be any different?
Oh, how different it was. Let's take a look at what Calipari and the players said before their 21-12 (12-6 SEC) season began -- and how it really turned out.
At the start of the year, the team realized that it was a fresh start. Last year was over; the national championship banner was raised; now it was their time to start a similar journey.
Calipari: "This is all exciting. I mean, think about it. It would be boring to have the same team every year, I think. We're coming in and have no idea. I have in my mind things that I think will work, and they may or may not work. … I have more knowledge, been through more experiences. There's nothing a kid is going to do or say that I haven't seen and I don't respond to it better."
Poythress: "We're taking it day-by-day. You can't get great in a day. You have to get better every day to progress and get to a level where you can compete for a national championship. … We're all great listeners. We're all students of the game. Whatever he needs us to do, he'll put is in a position to win. We trust our coach."
Cauley-Stein: "To me (basketball) was just a sport, before I came here. Now it's life. It's real now. For the fans, that's their life. Keeping up with what we're doing, with what Cal's doing every day. It becomes bigger than just a sport. Now you're messing with other people's emotions about the game. It's just cool to experience it at a young age. I'm only 19 and experiencing the best things a lot of people don't get to do in their life."
Calipari: "Kyle Wiltjer said he never thought he'd play on a team as close as last year's team. Now he's saying this team may be as close, if not closer than last year's team, which makes me feel good. I mean, that is the kind of stepping in that you want to have."
Goodwin: "At the end of the day, we're not last year's team. They did the unthinkable, and hopefully we can do the same thing. But we're two totally different teams, two totally different groups of players. We're just trying to do the same thing."
They may be two different groups of players, but this group looked plenty talented. Kentucky was returning an important rotation player and bringing in the No. 2, 8, 14 and 40 players in the country, along with two transfers.
Each one of them garnered encouraging reviews by Calipari in the preseason.
On Archie Goodwin: "Archie right now is looking more and more like out of the mold of DeAndre (Liggins) and Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist) who can guard two or three different positions."
On Alex Poythress: "Alex, I'm just trying to help define his game, but he's a wonderful kid. The thing we've been working on with him is he looks at his feet all the time. So my biggest thing is you don't look down. … (If you do), then it zaps us of energy. It zaps him of energy. That is part of the reason I think there are times in the game that he didn't have the motor. It's something that simple."
On Ryan Harrow: "I want Ryan to be the best layup shooter in the SEC. I don't need any cuteness. Get to the basket and shoot layups."
On Harrow and Kyle Wiltjer: "They need to be in practice early together. They need to be after practice together, kind of doing what (Dirk) Nowitzki and Steve Nash did, where they did their workouts together and they got real comfortable with each other on the court, especially in a late game."
On Nerlens Noel: "I worry about it because he's not Anthony Davis. Anthony Davis is a once in a ten‑year. He's just not. Anthony Davis was a skilled basketball player. Nerlens is a long bouncy ‑‑ way more bouncy than Anthony and longer, but he's not Anthony. He's not. And we shouldn't expect it now."
The players, too, had visions of their roles
Goodwin: "I know I make shots, because I'm a scorer. That's the bottom line, I'm going to make shots. Because if you want to play for Coach Cal you have to make shots. Or find something else to do."
Harrow: "Somebody said I'm a veteran. I still feel like I' young. This will be my second year playing. I feel people have high expectations for me because it's my second year here and because they've seen my YouTube videos and think 'we got a good one.'"
Poythress: "Everybody can do something real well. We've got shooters, we've got rebounders, we've got slashers, we've got shot-blockers. Everybody's got their own little niche."
Everyone did have their own niche, but that was the problem -- they were separate niches that rarely seemed to mesh together.
Most of those early reviews remained central issues throughout the year. Goodwin never developed into a great perimeter defender, and neither did any of his teammates -- it was the worst defensive team Calipari's had in years. Poythress remained an enigma, prone to disappearing and "zapping" the team of its energy in the process. Harrow missed 13 of 15 shots in an all-important SEC quarterfinal loss, many of them pretty good looks at the rim. Wiltjer never really developed into a go-to offensive threat. Noel -- well, he turned out even better than most expected before his season was cut short by an injury.
And Calipari's main goals for the entire season turned out to be unmet.
Calipari: "Right now, the basics and the first week of practice is going to be, be a great defensive team. We'll fly up and down the court. We'll teach the dribble drive, attacking the basket. We're going to really zero in on rebounding, because I think that's one of the things this team should be good at and needs to be good at, those kinds of things."
By the end of the season, Calipari had his worst defense since he returned to college coaching in 2000-01. UK's 94.6 adjusted defensive efficiency rating ranked No. 69 in the country. Calipari's teams had finished in the top 15 each of the previous seven seasons and had never finished outside the top 40.
And for a team that should have been and needed to be good at rebounding, UK decidedly was not. Their offensive rebounding rate ranked No. 75 nationally (only one Calipari team since 2003 ranked lower) and their defensive rebounding rate ranked No. 146 (again, only one Calipari team since 2003 ranked lower). For a team with two centers like Noel and Cauley-Stein and athletic players comprising most of the rest of the rotation, rebounding was an unrealized strength.
Another one of the popular ideas for this team was pairing Noel and Cauley-Stein together on the floor.
Cauley-Stein: "Sky's the limit on that one. Defense, we're both good at defense. That's our specialties coming in. It's going to be interesting to see if we'll be playing like that."
Calipari: "I'm going to mess around. I don't know how much per game we'll play those two. I really have no idea. It may be five minutes, 15 minutes, what if they're both really good together? It may be 25 minutes. So I don't know yet."
The two ended up playing between 12-13 minutes per game together in the 16 games where both were fully available. Kentucky's net margin when both were on the court? Plus-five, outscoring opponents 335-330. That lineup was, essentially, a wash.
But none of that was evident in November. The only thing that was certain was that Kentucky would play like a young team in the early going. But Calipari had showed an ability to mold a team and get them to progress in a compressed timeline. He had no reason to think this team would be any different.
Calipari: "I like what they'll look like in March in my mind. Right now, that's the only thing I can live with. I have a vision of what they're going to be in March, and that's what I try to drive them to. I know it's there and we're right here."