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May 15, 2013

Calipari wants 2013-14 Cats to shoot for perfection

A day after Andrew Wiggins went elsewhere, John Calipari was feeling good about where he is.

The nation's top-ranked recruit picked Kansas on Tuesday, and by Wednesday, Kentucky's coach had moved on, holding a news conference to discuss the still-stocked squad he'll field next season.

"I mean, (Wiggins is) a great kid and he's going to be a terrific basketball player," Calipari said. "It didn't change me any. I was confident in this team and the group we had before and after (his decision)."

Confident might be an understatement.

Coming off a 21-12 season and a first-round loss in the NIT, Calipari will field a team that figures to be ranked first or second in the preseason, restocked with top talent. Kentucky returns five scholarship players and adds eight freshmen, six of them McDonald's All-Americans.

It's a team deep and talented enough that Calipari didn't back down on Wednesday when asked about the possibility of a 40-0 dream season, the kind he'd called a goal within an hour of winning the 2012 NCAA title.

"Now, I'm not sitting there saying, 'If we lose a game, it's not a successful season,'" Calipari said. "No. But you're chasing greatness. What's wrong with that? 'Well, we want to talk moment to moment and we're not putting that on the kids.' Well, we are."

That doesn't mean Calipari will dangle a perfect season as a motivational carrot, a challenge for a team that will feature five players ranked by Rivals.com in the Top 10 of their respective high school classes.

"I won't, but there'll be things out there that'll be, 'We're chasing perfection. We're chasing greatness. We're chasing things that have never been done in the history of our game,'" Calipari said.

He'll have a team positioned to pursue them.

Even without Wiggins, the Wildcats will boast four of the Top 10 players in the 2013 Rivals150 in forward Julius Randle (No. 2), point guard Andrew Harrison (No. 5), shooting guard Aaron Harrison (No. 5) and center Dakari Johnson (No. 9). Another incoming freshman, swingman James Young, is ranked No. 11. Forward Marcus Lee is No. 19.

They join a nucleus that includes Alex Poythress, the No. 8 player in the 2012 Rivals150, Willie Cauley-Stein, who was No. 40 in 2012 and Kyle Wiltjer, the No. 22 player in the 2011 Rivals150.

That's to say nothing of returning role players Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson and in-state newcomers Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins.

On paper, it's Calipari's deepest and most versatile team yet.

"But what I like is there's going to be competition," Calipari said. "Some guys are going to play. Some guys are not going to play. Who? No one's been promised anything. That's just how it is. They're going to have to compete with each other."

Kentucky probably will play a rotation of "eight or nine guys," Calipari said, meaning four of five players "aren't playing much." Those roles will be decided in what Calipari expects to be heated, competitive practices.

That will be a stark contrast from last season. His 2012 NCAA champs, Calipari said, "did not have one bad practice." Last season's NIT team, "had about five good practices" all season, he said.

Calipari expects a return to the competitive practices of 2011-12, but that won't be the only change. Players will have to earn their way into single dorm rooms at the Wildcat Coal Lodge and into Kentucky's expansive locker room, he said.

And as usual, Calipari will tweak his team's style of play.

Andrew and Aaron Harrison, he said, "are terrific drivers, which kind of tells you that we're going to go back to a lot more dribble-drive." In bouncing strategy ideas off friends, Calipari said he's discussed "dribble-drive into pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll into dribble-drive, because of the team."

The Cats also might take a page from defending NCAA champ Louisville, using their increased depth to apply more - and more physical - full-court pressure.

"So we're going to press and play more physical and bump and grind, and we'll put our arms up in the air and we'll hip-check guys," Calipari said. "That's how we're going to play. Now we have numbers."

The numbers that matter most are nine (Kentucky will pursue its ninth NCAA title) and 40, the win total it takes to achieve that elusive perfection. Calipari isn't shying away from either. Nor are his players.

"I don't go into a game expecting to lose, so why not go 40-0 and win the national championship?" Randle said last month at the McDonald's All-American Game. "People say it can't be done; why can't we?"

And that kind of chatter is fine by Calipari.

"What I like about that, people say, 'Pressure!'" Calipari said. "Man, pressure brings out the best. 'You're gonna be fired if you don't get this done! You're not going to make it if you don't get this done!' Wakes you up earlier in the morning. I don't mind a little pressure.

"I've had it my whole career. I've had the gun to my head for 20-something years. And you know what? I'm at my best when the gun is to my head versus, 'OK, I'm good, I can kick back.' I'm not as good. And you know what? Players are the same."


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