John Calipari worked on a little transition defense Tuesday afternoon at the Craft Center.
Not the kind you may be thinking about, though, as the Kentucky head coach prepares his team for the upcoming season.
Calipari, entering his fifth season at the helm of the Wildcats, backed down a bit from statements he made during the summer about coaching an undefeated team.
Many interpreted the comments to mean the UK boss thought his 2013-14 squad, built around an eight-man recruiting class considered by many to be the best in college basketball history, could run the table this season en route to the Wildcats’ second championship in three years.
Hold the phone, Calipari said Tuesday during UK’s annual basketball media day.
“I feel like (White House Press Secretary) Jay Carney up here,” Calipari joked. “Let me again tell you what I’ve said for about eight years. I’ve said, before I retire, I would love to coach a team that goes 40-0,” adding that, like in the political sphere, a Democrat may interpret that slightly different than a Republican.
“Will that happen? I don’t know.”
The last team to accomplish an undefeated season was Indiana in 1976 when Bobby Knight led the Hoosiers to a 32-0 mark. UCLA went undefeated four times (1964, 1967, 1972, 1973) during John Wooden’s run of 10 titles in 12 years.
But no one has threatened the mark in recent years, not even Kentucky’s dominant championship squads in 1996 (34-2) and 2012 (38-2).
So why such high hopes this season? Calipari welcomes back two important pieces from last year’s squad – forward Alex Poythress and center Willie Cauley-Stein, two players who could have been selected in this year’s NBA Draft had they opted to enter their names – to go along with another No. 1 recruiting class. UK signed the top prospect in the nation at four of five traditional positions: Andrew Harrison (point guard); twin brother Aaron Harrison (shooting guard); Julius Randle (power forward) and Dakari Johnson (center).
But is that too much pressure to put on a young and unproven roster? Remember, last year’s UK team was ranked in the preseason top five and wound up losing to Robert Morris in a tiny Pennsylvania gymnasium in the first round of the NIT.
The lesson learned: Recruiting triumphs don’t always equate to dominating games.
The UK boss says expectations for the Cats remain in place regardless of whether they openly discuss a goal of an undefeated season.
“Every game we play, we play to win,” Calipari said. “We're not playing any game not to win. The reason I like the mentality of every game matters is you don't want to get upset by people that you shouldn't be beat by. That game matters as much as a North Carolina or Michigan State or whoever else. Those games matter, too.
“We don't talk about it as a team. I mean, I don't. It's not like, oh, we're going 40-0. We don't.”
Calipari even declined to say whether he thought his team merited consideration for a No. 1 preseason ranking.
“I haven’t seen anyone else, so I don’t know,” he said.
Asked if this team reminded him of any of his previous four teams at Kentucky, Calipari pointed to his first squad led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
“I'd like this to play out a little bit and look back,” he added. “I will tell you, this team is deeper than that team. We have a couple more that we didn't have, but you just had two guys sign max deals in the NBA, so, you know...
“I like my team. And anybody that's watched them knows we have good kids that are listening, that are sharing.”