John Calipari takes freshman-laden Kentucky for opening spin

By Darrell Bird, The Sports Xchange  |  Nov. 8, 2017 at 6:16 PM
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Kentucky opens the season against Utah Valley on Friday night with the youngest team ever assembled by John Calipari, an impressive fact given the coach is the king of "one-and-done" players.

Eight of UK's 11 scholarship players are freshmen; two are sophomores. The Wildcats return just 7 percent of their scoring from last season, 12 percent of minutes played and 15 percent of their rebounding.

The only year in which those numbers were worse was 2013, which ended with an NIT bid.

"We're just a ways away from being a good basketball team," Calipari said at the conclusion of a three-game exhibition schedule. "We're learning and they're not fighting me; they just don't know. And I'm going to be honest with you, you can't skip steps with a team like this. When you have all freshmen you cannot skip steps."

No. 5-ranked Kentucky finds out Friday against Utah Valley, a member of the Western Athletic Conference. The Wolverines' coach is Mark Pope, a valuable reserve on Kentucky's 1996 NCAA championship team.

Under Pope, Utah Valley was 12-18 in 2016 before improving to 17-17 last season, including two wins in the College Basketball Invitational, the school's first-ever postseason victories. Friday's game in Lexington is Utah Valley's season opener.

The Wolverines return four starters -- junior guard Conner Toolson (11.9 points per game), senior Kenneth Ogbe (10.6), senior Brandon Randolph (10.0) and graduate student Zach Nelson (7.4).

Utah Valley plays at No. 1 Duke on Saturday night.

"People say this will be the toughest 24 hours." Pope told Kentucky.com. "It could be the dumbest 24 hours."

Kentucky won three exhibition games over Thomas More, Morehead State and Centre College. Seven players averaged double figures during the three games, topped by freshman Kevin Knox at 19.3 points per game.

Next comes freshman Quade Green, 15.7; sophomore Wenyen Gabriel, 13.0; freshmen Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 11.3; freshman P.J. Washington, 11.0; and freshman Nick Richards, 10.3. Gabriel was the top rebounder at 8.3 per game and Green led in assists at 5.7.

Two other freshmen are sidelined by injury. Jarred Vanderbilt is beginning light workouts after a foot injury and Jemarl Baker is out roughly two months after having arthroscopic surgery on his knee last week.

As most coaches are working diligently to bring their teams together under a set system of basketball, Calipari is hoping for the opposite.

"I want this to be a random-playing team," Calipari said. "But it looks like we're going to have to have some, not over-structure, but good structure that they know, if there's nothing there, this is what we're doing.

"I don't want to have to call stuff every time down, but I will. We'll play the way we have to play."

The coach plans to break early season games into pieces.

"We probably are going to have to play in segments," Calipari said. "Like for four- or five-minute segments we're playing a certain way and, OK, now let's go to this and then finish with what works good."

Kentucky opens the season with three games in a five-day span. After Utah Valley on Friday, the Wildcats host Vermont on Sunday. The Catamounts won 29 games last year and were undefeated in America East play. Kentucky finishes on Tuesday against fourth-ranked Kansas in the Champions Classic in Chicago.

"We may be ugly early," Calipari warned. "I just hope we're not just awful early."

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