Calipari talks about coaching a veteran team for a change

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How soon they forget.

Perhaps it slipped his mind when John Calipari took his turn on the SEC basketball coaches’ conference call Monday morning. The UK coach opened with a comment about his roster and referred to the fact that it’s NOT dotted almost entirely with freshmen.

“We're in the unique situation where we have veterans,” he said. “Now, granted, those veterans are sophomores and two of them are juniors, but the other four are sophomores, which is kind of unusual for us.”

Which it is, compared to his last two teams. But let’s look back at 2012, shall we? The NCAA championship team had – gasp! – veterans, including sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamp, as well as an actual, in-the-flesh senior who played substantial minutes, Darius Miller.

You can understand if Calipari’s mind is still unwinding from a season that saw him do almost the unthinkable: Coach a team featuring five true freshmen starters to the national championship. With all due respect to Connecticut, a UK team that hits its free throws likely leaves Arlington, Texas, that night with the big hardware.

And it’s almost a cinch that the Wildcats will be picked to win it all this coming season, thanks to the return of the Harrison twins, as well as Willie Cauley-Stein. Anyone making book on player departures surely had short odds on all three splashing into the pre-draft NBA talent pool. But they’re back in Lexington right now, meaning you can put those same short odds on UK winning another NCAA title.

Calipari shared the story of Cauley-Stein’s decision again. “I thought Willie was leaving,” he said. “The next morning after the national championship game (I) was congratulating him. 'I'm proud of you. You were a football player. Two years ago, no one knew who you were. You weren't a McDonald's All-American. You weren't a Jordan (Brand All-American). You weren't …' (People say) 'He was one-and-done before he got there.' That's not what he was. And he was a top-15 pick?

“ And he came in my office the following day and said, 'I want to come back.' I go, 'What?' He said, 'One, I'm having a ball. Two, I'm not ready for that league, to do what I want to do. Three, I want to win a (championship) before I leave.' Well then it's good reasons to come back.”

Mind you, Cauley-Stein is coming back for his junior season. His first year ended in a first-round NIT loss; his second in the title game but for him, well before that, thanks to an injury. He’s still never had a chance to make a run through the big dance. And now, should he stay healthy, he’ll have a chance to help carry his team to Indianapolis to finish the job left undone last season.

And then more Wildcats (perhaps even freshmen) will wait to be drafted, and Kentucky once again will become ground zero for arguments about the one-and-done. Calipari fielded a question about the possibility of the NBA age limit being raised so that prospective pros would have to spend two seasons in college basketball.

The UK coach spoke about how it obviously would make his life easier, but said it actually would benefit players as well, even if they were forced to live the academic life for another 12 months. But he said more changes have to come with the additional year.

“For our players I'm happy as heck,” he said. “If it goes to two years, I think they'll be better prepared.

"But you cannot do that unless the NCAA is gonna do things along with the NBA if kids are asked to stay another year. I mean, are you gonna do the cost of living? Are you gonna cover their insurance? What about loss of value insurance that's really expensive? What about flying them back and forth once or twice a year? Why would we not do that? What about their families being flown to the NCAA events, championship events, with the teams? Why would we not do all those things? So we finally after five years of absolute arm-wrangling got the food right so that we can feed these kids without feeling we're gonna go to jail and we're criminals for feeding them.”

Perhaps for the benefit of those who claim his players stop going to classes during the second semester on their way to the NBA, Calipari shared the fact that his team had an overall GPA of 3.11 in the spring. “It’s not at the expense of education,” he said.

Nor, he said, were his conversations with potential draft picks “four-hour brainwashing” sessions. He said they normally run about five minutes, during which he shares whatever pertinent information he has.

Calipari deftly avoided the subject of Rupp Arena renovation, saying he’s been out of town and has just the basic information. “I just hope everybody gets together and does what’s right for the city and the university,” he said.

He also said the teams the Wildcats will face in the Bahamas will provide better competition than the ballclubs Kentucky played in Canada four years ago – all the better to help prepare a team that will be carrying the highest of expectations this coming basketball season. And should be well-equipped to handle them.

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