Bobby Knight may question whether John Calipari has integrity, but no one can question how quickly the Kentucky coach has his new team back on its traditional winning track.
The third-ranked Wildcats (10-0) are off to their best start in 16 years and have placed Calipari on the cusp of history. A win over Austin Peay (7-4) on Saturday and he will break Adolph Rupp’s record for the best start by a first-year head coach. Rupp won his first 10 games with the Wildcats in 1931.
It’s heady territory, particularly for a team that starts three freshmen and just completed an eight-day stretch that included tough wins over No. 10 North Carolina, No. 14 Connecticut and Indiana.
But it hasn’t been without some recent controversy, as Knight called out Calipari during a fundraiser for the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame on Thursday.
“We’ve gotten into this situation where integrity is really lacking and that’s why I’m glad I’m not coaching,” Knight said. “You see we’ve got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation and he’s still coaching. I really don’t understand that.”
Calipari, whose stops at UMass and Memphis resulted in vacated Final Four appearances, said Knight’s comments surprised him.
“I don’t agree with what he says but it doesn’t change how I feel about him,” said Calipari, who was not implicated in either case.
Regardless of his past, Calipari certainly looks to have the Wildcats on a road toward a bright future, and he’s wasted no time in turning things around in Lexington.
Asked Friday if he thinks his team has overachieved, Calipari just raised his eyebrow and tried to suppress a grin.
“Being 5-5, I would hope we did OK,” Calipari said.
It’s Calipari’s way of trying to keep his team grounded. While the record appears spotless, Calipari points to a handful of games he’s not sure his team should have won.
His players, however, know better.
When freshman point guard Eric Bledsoe was asked if the Wildcats could go undefeated, he didn’t hesitate.
“I think we can, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work,” he said.
Hard work was something decidedly lacking during a practice earlier in the week when Calipari opted to leave early and let the players take control. When he popped in the tape to watch what happened, he wasn’t surprised with what he saw.
“They had reverted about five weeks,” Calipari said. “Basically they’re not ready to be empowered. They’re not ready for (me to say) ‘It’s your team, now go play.’”
He didn’t expect anything different on a team loaded with 18-year-olds.
“I’ve got to be on top of them, I’ve got to drive them,” Calipari said. “They’re young kids, they’re going to see how far they can push. They’re going to see how little they can to do get by.”
Practices may be the biggest obstacle for the Wildcats over the next few weeks. Saturday’s game starts a six-game homestand in which Kentucky will likely be considered heavy favorites in each contest.
If they can somehow get to 15-0 or 16-0, the players know the buzz about going undefeated will grow.
Not that it matters to Calipari. His refusal to recognize his team’s spotless start is part of his plan to keep the Wildcats from getting a little too full of themselves.
“I think he has a fear of us coming out and getting bigheaded and losing to a team we shouldn’t lose to,” Josh Harrellson said. “Right now he’s just trying to keep us modest, keeping us down to earth.”