Kentucky’s newly-minted No. 1-ranked team is eager to play someone in different-colored jerseys, and John Calipari is ready to see how outside competition may affect his rotation plans entering the season.
“We’ve been playing each other now, 22 practices, so I think they’re just about, you know, ready to put it out there against somebody else,” the UK coach said Thursday leading up to the Wildcats’ exhibition game on Friday night against cross-town DIII program Transylvania University.
“We’re still trying to evaluate who’s in that top six, seven, eight. We get another look. The scrimmage kind of put out one thing, but let’s see it against somebody else, see how guys do.”
Freshman guard Dominique Hawkins defended Aaron Harrison in the Blue-White Scrimmage. (FOX Sports Photo by Jeff Drummond.)
Calipari said the unexpected strong play of newcomers like Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins threw a wrench into his original rotation thinking. Willis, a skilled 6-foot-9 forward from Bullitt East High School in Kentucky, made five of six 3-point shots in Tuesday’s scrimmage en route to a 21-point effort that made him the buzz across Big Blue Nation. Hawkins, the reigning Kentucky “Mr. Basketball” from state champion Madison Central High School, added 11 points and caught Calipari’s eye with a good defensive effort.
Both Willis and Hawkins were three-star prospects in a class that featured the top-ranked player in the nation at four of five positions, so not a great deal was expected of either one in their first season with the Cats. Instead, they were viewed as potential four-year players who could develop and provide UK with experience and depth in the future to complement Calipari’s annual haul of “one-and-done” talent.
“I threw a group out there that I thought should be playing together,” Calipari said of placing expected starters Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein on the Blue squad. “Then all of a sudden Dominique (Hawkins) and Derek (Willis) play out of their minds.
“It’s all good at practice and drills and all that, but when you put people in the seats and it’s on television to 10 states and there’s 15,000 fans… now you see who performs when the numbers are on the back and the lights are on. Those two stepped up.”
Seven spots appear to be locks for consistent playing time this season: the Harrison twins at point guard and shooting guard; James Young at small forward; Julius Randle at power forward and either Cauley-Stein or 7-foot freshman Dakari Johnson (16 points, a game-high 11 rebounds in the Blue-White Scrimmage) at center. Sophomore forward Alex Poythress, who Calipari said had his best day of practice on Thursday and earned a starting job for the Transy exhibition, is also squarely in the mix.
That leaves senior point guard Jarrod Polson, senior wing Jon Hood, freshman center Marcus Lee, Willis and Hawkins fighting to show they belong in the mix.
“We’ll have to figure it out as we go,” Calipari said. “… The great news is, everybody is challenged. You have guys playing really well, where now all of a sudden I’m in my office at 10:30 and I hear thump, thump, thump. This guy playing against that guy. Now he’s in the gym, ‘I got to get some extra work in, this guy is really playing well.’ That’s pretty good for us.”
After Tuesdays’ exhibition game, Calipari said he did not want to play with more than a first and second unit this season. Asked to elaborate on his comment Thursday, the UK boss said the young team’s learning curve was a big factor.
“Well, you’d like to play your whole roster because you’re up 35, then you put all those guys in,” he said. “But the reality of it is… when you have young guys trying to figure it out, you can’t keep throwing more into the mix. We have to figure out these six or seven, that group has to get good. It’s not just throwing … you can’t do it that way. How I figure that out, part of it is in practice, part of it is going to be in these games.”