LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — John Calipari is having fun again.
Nearly a year removed from a disastrous campaign that featured Kentucky’s first losing season since 1988-89, the Wildcats’ coach is expecting bigger and better things from his squad this season.
“I've got a bunch of guys that want to be coached, that want to challenge each other, that are engaged,” he said Wednesday. “We've got veterans. When you have veterans, they're on time. It starts to lead — without even saying anything, they lead. That's been fun.”
The roster underwent a typical turnover, but this time Calipari revamped by dipping into the transfer portal and grabbed three experienced collegiate players — CJ Fredrick, Kellan Grady and Sahvir Wheeler — to give the Wildcats more experience this season.
The three players are joined by five returnees, including former Pendleton County standout and Mr. Basketball Dontaie Allen, and three newcomers give Calipari a squad reminiscent of the 2019-20 team that finished 30-7 and lost to Auburn in the NCAA South Regional finals.
“I haven't had many teams with veteran kind of players on it, so I kind of forget that it takes one thing off your plate,” Calipari said. “But it's good. They're shooting the ball. They're playing. They're competing.”
A year ago, Calipari battled the uncertainty of a regular season because of the pandemic, but admitted “it’s like a normal season for us” and added that last year is a “blip” and “so far behind me.”
“We have not had a bad practice yet,” Calipari said. “I said, we go through seasons without a bad practice here. Seasons. Those are the teams that are winning 38, 35, 32, those are those teams. There's a bunch of them.”
What Calipari likes is the competition level in practice thus far, a sign that things will be better than a year ago and analysts have taken notice. Kentucky was ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press Preseason Top-25 poll released earlier this week.
“What I like about this group, they're competing against each other,” he said. “Yes, we do have depth. So now you have guys that are similar skills offensively. Who would you play now? It's you. They're very similar offensively. Who are you going to play? It's done in practice but how about who defends better, rebounds better, takes care of the ball better. Those guys get a leg up, and I keep telling them, you're competing with each other, yet I'll play as many deserve to play.”
Although he has plenty to work with, Calipari doesn’t plan on a Blue Platoon rotation similar to the system he used during the 2014-15 season.
“I’ve played 10 before, (but) I'd rather not,” he said. “I’ve played five before and six. Probably not enough, but I would do it if people separate as we go forward. Right now, if you walked into practice and watched, you'd say, they are really competing.”
Because of the experience on his team’s roster, Calipari has focused less on drills and more on scrimmaging in an effort to get his squad more familiar with each other.
“Hopefully we get more of that because they've got to get to feel each other and how they're playing,” he said.
Following the Blue-White game Friday, there are a pair of exhibition games during the next two weeks. Calipari hopes to have a feel for his team and what steps to take moving forward.
“We'll have an idea,” he said. “It's us playing against each other. They know each other. We'll play a couple of exhibition and then we start the regular season. We'll have it figured out by then.”
Keith Taylor is the sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at Keith.email@example.com or via Twitter at keithtaylor21