By Gary B. Graves
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LEXINGTON, Ky. _ Kentucky coach John Calipari took longer than usual to assemble another top-flight recruiting class good enough to raise national championship expectations.
Of course, those lofty projections don’t ever change in Lexington.
But expecting these Wildcats to duplicate last year’s school-record 38-0 start is probably unrealistic, especially with Calipari taking his usual long-term view that his team will look better in March than right now.
Though far from a rebuilding project after his so-called “one-and-dones” hung around longer than expected, the coach warned that it could “get ugly” early on as the newcomers adjust to the college game and his system.
“We have no habits right now that will win you championships,” Calipari said during Wednesday’s annual day. “My guys returning, they do, but none of these new guys.”
Veteran Kentucky forwards Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee, along with guard Tyler Ulis may indeed be counted on initially to help offset the NBA departures of seven players from a 38-1 Final Four team.
Karl-Anthony Towns went No. 1 overall to Minnesota and led four Wildcats selected in the top 13 and six drafted overall.
The upperclassmen also must acclimate a bunch of new faces including 6-foot-11 forward Skal Labissiere and guards Isaiah Briscoe, Charles Matthews, Mychal Mulder and Jamal Murray _ who signed this summer along with 7-foot Australian Isaac Humphries.
The first question Calipari faced Tuesday was whether Labissiere will be playing when the Wildcats open the season Nov. 13 against Albany. Asked repeatedly about reports the NCAA is reviewing the Haiti native’s eligibility, Kentucky athletic officials give the same response: They will confirm a player’s status on game day only.
Calipari and Labissiere, however, don’t seem concerned.
Calipari said of Labissiere’s status: “I’m fine. We’ll see in the first game.”
Added Labissiere, “I expect to play by the first game of the season. I’m not worried.”
Kentucky certainly needs size after losing 7-footers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, 6-11 Towns and 6-10 Trey Lyles to the draft. Labissiere certainly brings that and has bulked up to 220 pounds. Humphries meanwhile has been a surprise with an inside presence that Calipari compared to Towns, and a nice jumper to boot.
However, the backcourt might be the Wildcats’ deepest area with Ulis slated to run the point alongside shooters Murray, Briscoe and Matthews. After patiently playing behind Andrew Harrison last season, the 5-9 sophomore is eager to direct things.
Calipari even went as far to say Ulis may be the best floor general he’s ever coached. Whether it was rhetoric or the coach was serious, it was hefty praise considering the recently inducted Hall of Famer has developed his share of standout guards including John Wall, who became an eventual No. 1 overall NBA pick and is now an All-Star with Washington.
Ulis smiled but shrugged it off.
“I just had to sit and wait my turn and understand because everybody deserved to play,” Ulis said. “I can play as many minutes as he needs me to, but I feel like I need to lead this team and just do what I need to do to win.”
Kentucky could begin the season shorthanded as juniors Dominique Hawkins (broken right hand) and Derek Willis (left finger) recover from injuries sustained last week. Though their absences delay the chemistry Calipari had hoped to develop with this newest group, what matters to Calipari most is having everyone available and executing by springtime.
“We’re not going to look like the same team in March,” Calipari said. “Some of you should keep the tapes, go back in February, look ? how we’re playing. … Your questions will be, ‘Coach, you’re not even playing anything like you did in November.’ Yeah, we’re trying to figure it out on the run.”