Calipari excited about Cats’ potential

Published 10:00 am Thursday, August 2, 2018

John Calipari has spent more time with this Kentucky team than any other he has coached at Kentucky. In some ways, it’s been a throwback summer for the Kentucky coach as the Wildcats prepare for a preseason trip to the Bahamas.

Calipari has spent less time on the recruiting trail than usual, giving assistant coaches Tony Barbee, Joel Justus, and Kenny Payne more time on the road. Maybe it’s because the Kentucky coach knows he has a team capable of making a serious run at a national championship. Much like the 2012 squad, this group of Wildcats have an equally special blend of talent that leaves Calipari gushing almost every time he talks about them and gets more comfortable with his team with each and every practice.

“A couple days I was there by myself — old school (and) I had no assistants,” he said. “I coached the team with no assistants. It was just me. I can remember my UMass days where there were days like that where the assistants went recruiting and I had the team by myself. I didn’t know back then that was not how it’s supposed to be. You’re supposed to have a staff with you. Really. I had no idea.”

During an open practice for media members Wednesday, it was easy to see why Calipari has a swagger when it comes to talking about the upcoming season and the following are some observances from the two-hour session at the Joe Craft Center. The teams were divided into Blue and White squads. The Blue unit consisted of Quade Green, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, PJ Washington and EJ Montgomery, while Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Brad Calipari, Reid Travis and Nick Richards suited up for the white squad.

— As expected, Stanford transfer Travis is head and shoulders above the rest of the Wildcats when it comes to collegiate experience. Travis displays the leadership skills and post play the freshmen as well as returnees Washington and Richards need to compete against in order to get better and stronger underneath. Travis and Washington are the team’s most physical players in the paint.

“He’s been good,” Calipari said of Travis. “There are times when he’s struggled to get the ball in. I said, ‘You know, of all the tape I watched, I never saw you miss a shot like that. Tell the guys why you’re missing some of those.’ He said, ‘Length.’ Like, all of the sudden you’re out there and everybody is really long and big. So I said it’s the best thing for him. Physically, he’s beating some guys up a little bit, which is good for them.”

— Much like he has in the past, Calipari emphasized consistently during the two-hour practice to throw the ball ahead, meaning one extra pass on the break in order for the newcomers to develop a comfort zone when it comes to assists.

— Although it’s early, Calipari has spent more time working on team plays and defense as opposed to individual instruction ahead of the Bahamas getaway. Calipari demanded consistent play on defense and wants to press teams to shoot near the end of the shot clock, which happened several times during five-on-five defensive drills.

— This team has got some outside shooters and don’t be surprised if Herro lights it up from long range this season. Herro has the makings of giving the Wildcats a legitimate three-point shooter they desperately missed last season following the departure of Malik Monk. Although the shots from long range weren’t a point of emphasis, Johnson showed his ability to make long-range jumpers at various stages of the practice session.

— As usual, Calipari makes sure his point guards are on task and made sure Green stayed within himself and demanded more from the sophomore guard.

— Washington stood out with his pink Nike shoes and still had his fingers taped but hasn’t missed a beat following surgery on his pinky finger. Washington held his own in the past and appears to have gotten stronger underneath despite missing out of the early summer workouts.

— Recent NBA draftees Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox attended the practice and were very comfortable in their own skin. Both appeared relaxed, while Gilgeous-Alexander flashed his trademark smile several times and got cracked up at Calipari at one point early in the workout.

— Quickley and Hagans are very quick and should help form a formidable backcourt that will be hard for opposing teams to handle. Both players seem to have a grasp of what it takes to play defense and provided a challenge for Green and Herro, who were on the blue team.

— Montgomery reminds me of former Kentucky star Tayshaun Prince.

— Jemarl Baker didn’t practice and has been sitting out the past few practices because of swelling in his knee. Calipari said it was uncertain whether or not Baker would make the trip to the Bahamas.