A new basketball season at Kentucky has come to mean a new roster for the Wildcats.
The defending national champions aren’t exactly rebuilding, thanks to yet another No. 1 ranked national recruiting class for John Calipari, but UK has undergone another total roster makeover since cutting down the nets in New Orleans.
Gone are six NBA Draft picks, including national player of the year Anthony Davis, and so should be the comparisons to that club, Calipari said Thursday during UK’s annual basketball media day.
“This is all exciting,” said Calipari, who is entering his fourth year in Lexington. “I mean, think about it. It would be boring to have the same team every year, I think. We're coming in and have no idea. I have in my mind things that I think will work, and they may or may not work.”
At the center – literally and figuratively – of the comparison debate will be 6-foot-10 freshman Nerlens Noel, who, like Davis, enters college basketball as the No. 1 prospect in the country and holds the reputation of an elite defensive player.
“I worry about it because he's not Anthony Davis,” Calipari said. “Anthony Davis is a once-in-a-10-year (player)… Anthony Davis was a skilled basketball player. Nerlens is a long, bouncy – way more bouncy than Anthony and longer – but he's not Anthony. He's not. And we shouldn't expect it now.”
That goes for other newcomers like 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, power forward Alex Poythress, shooting guard Archie Goodwin and point guard Ryan Harrow, who is eligible to play this season after watching from the UK bench last year as a transfer from N.C. State. He's one of two transfers for the Cats this season, including shooting guard Julius Mays via Wright State.
“Willie's bigger than both (Davis and Noel) and runs better than both of those guys,” Calipari said. “Anthony ran pretty fast. He and Anthony would tie in a race. Yet he's not the basketball player that Anthony was, neither one of those guys.
“Alex is not Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Archie's totally different than Doron (Lamb) or Darius (Miller). Totally different. And Ryan's totally different than Marquis Teague, they're all different.”
One of the few holdovers isn’t even the same player.
“Kyle Wiltjer is just like Kyle Wiltjer, but he got stronger. Legs are stronger, quicker,” Calipari said of the sophomore forward who averaged 11.6 minutes a game and was generally utilized in spots as a 3-point shooting specialist. This season, he'll be counted upon for more low-post scoring.
As is the case with most Calipari-coached teams, much of the focus will be on the point guard position entering the 2012-13 season. How will Harrow measure up against predecessors like John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague, all who are now playing in the NBA?
Harrow, who averaged 9.3 points and 3.3 assists per game as a freshman All-ACC selection at N.C. State, does not possess the strength of previous UK point guards. He carries only 170 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame, but is known as a tremendous leaper.
“People are going to look at him and be real physical,” Calipari said. “If he can't play through that type of game, then we've got to make decisions. ‘How are we going to do this?’ because that's how they're going to play him.”
Calipari said Harrow compares favorably to Knight in many ways. “He can score the ball. He’s becoming a good layup shooter, playing through bumps, getting it off the glass and throwing lobs and all. He’s getting better.”
The UK boss was quick to remind that players typically won’t look like they do in November when March rolls around. He said Teague’s progress during the course of the season was a key to the Cats winning their eighth national title.
“I like what they'll look like in March in my mind,” Calipari said. “… I'm going to try to be patient. I'm not the most patient guy, but I'm going to try to be as patient as I can to drag them along. We were patient last year with Marquis Teague, and it paid off, didn't it? We had people say you can't play him at point guard. Let somebody else play the point guard, and we let it go. We just said we're sticking to this, and we're going to be patient with him. We were, and by the end of the year he was the best point guard in my opinion.”
Perhaps the most encouraging thing Calipari has taken from preseason workouts has been the chemistry he sees between his players.
“Kyle Wiltjer said he never thought he'd play on a team as close as last year's team,” he said. “Now he's saying this team may be as close, if not closer than last year's team, which makes me feel good.”