Smart and talented they might be, but it’s still a whole new language.
That’s why the Wildcats coach scoffs at anybody who would anoint the defending national champions the team to beat.
“Whoever did that needs to be drug-tested,” Calipari said Thursday at Southeastern Conference media days. “We’re not very good right now. I think we’ll be a good team eventually, hopefully, but right now we’re just average.
“Good players, good kids, they’re trying. Just young. Don’t play hard enough. Don’t play full possessions. Out of control. Don’t know each other, which isn’t surprising. We have no roles right now. We’re all trying to figure out who’s who.”
Of course, it’s only October. Check back in March.
Calipari will get little sympathy in a league that figures to only get stronger with the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri. There are new coaches at South Carolina (Frank Martin), Mississippi State (Rich Ray) and LSU (Johnny Jones) and new stars like Tigers point guard Phil Pressey, the preseason SEC player of the year.
Teams will play 18 conference games this season instead of 16 with the expansion, and divisions are no more in hoops.
The most scrutinized change might be which blue-chip recruits are sporting the blue-and-white Kentucky jerseys. That’s not so unusual, but Calipari insists this time it’s different.
The Wildcats must replace six NBA draft picks, including the top two in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. This entirely new starting five won’t have the same support from more seasoned players like, say, last year’s sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. Certainly not senior Darius Miller. Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer is back after averaging 12 minutes a game.
“I’ve always had two or three veterans,” Calipari said. “Everything we’re doing is practically new to everybody. This is a different deal. We’ve got good kids who are good players, but we’re not a good team.
“That’s the challenge of it. What would you expect? We lost every player from last year. It just takes time. You don’t just go and all of a sudden they get to know one another.”
Those recruits include another shot-blocker to replace Davis in top national recruit Nerlens Noel, along with Archie Goodwin, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.
Florida’s Billy Donovan must replace No. 3 pick Bradley Beal, another one-and-done star, and point guard Erving Walker. High-scoring guard Kenny Boynton and center Patric Young return, though, for a team that has made the regional finals each of the past two seasons.
Missouri has only one starter and three lettermen returning from a team that won 30 games last season but was stunned by 15th seed Norfolk State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Their second-round opponent would have been the Gators.
That starter, though, is the 5-foot-11 dynamo Pressey, a finalist for the Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard.
Haith expects four transfers to have immediate impacts, including former Connecticut forward Alex Oriakhi and Earnest Ross, who led the SEC’s Auburn in scoring and rebounding two years ago. Another transfer, Oregon’s Jabari Brown, is eligible starting in December.
Now, Haith gets to try to develop chemistry with new players sort of like Calipari does annually at Kentucky.
“I applaud Cal, what he’s done,” the Missouri coach said. “I think it’s very difficult what he does in terms of having a whole new team every year, basically. Last year’s team, he did have some veterans, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. I think he’ll tell you that helped, but the nucleus of his team has always been young guys. He got those guys to play so hard on the defensive end. That’s always the thing with young kids, getting them to understand how hard they’ve got to play on the defensive end of the court, and he’s done that.”
Haith said he watched tapes of SEC games over the summer to get a sense of the style of his new league.
“I think the one thing that really stands out is the athleticism of this league,” he said. “It’s a very athletic league. I also think they play a style in terms of tempo defensively a little differently than the Big 12. There’s more pressing. There’s more aggressive play, extending the defense, in this league than there was in the Big 12. That’s something we have to get used to.”
Besides Kentucky, no SEC team had more turnover than Vanderbilt, which lost its six leading scorers from a team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Guard Kedren Johnson is the top scorer back and he only averaged 3.1 points a game.
“Even though the talent is different, the expectation is not,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “Hopefully our guys understand very well that we’re not going to compromise or lower our standard even though we’ve had a great deal of turnover.”
The new teams have the returning coaches lobbying for more teams to get into the NCAA tournament after only four made it last season, not counting Missouri.
“Like with the Big East and a lot of these teams that have expansion right now, I think you’re always looking to try to get half your league in legitimately,” Donovan said. “I think we should be legitimately talking about getting eight teams into the tournament.
“That’s what we’re looking at trying to do right now. With the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri, that should be a realistic goal for this league.”