Even with Duke in opener, Kentucky’s Calipari ‘having a ball’ as new season nears

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Coincidentally or not, John Calipari likened his 2021-22 Kentucky team to the players he coached the last time Duke was the opening night opponent.

While Duke routed Kentucky 118-84 to open the 2018-19 season, Calipari clearly meant a compliment with the comparison. UK will open this season against Duke on Nov. 9.

That’s because both teams had or are expected to have experienced players, good guard play and a desire to excel.

“I’m having a ball every day I walk in,” Calipari said at Wednesday’s Media Day. “Because I’ve got a bunch of guys who want to be coached.”

Of course, this season’s veterans include junior Keion Brooks and transfers Oscar Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler, Kellan Grady and CJ Fredrick.

Calipari saluted how the experienced players are habitually on time. Leadership is almost an involuntary reflex.

“Without (coaches) ever saying anything, they lead,” the UK coach said. “I kind of forget that it takes one thing off your plate. It’s a little like Reid (Travis) and PJ (Washington). That kind of team.”

After the blowout loss to Duke, Kentucky lost only two games in the next three-plus months and ultimately advanced to the South Region finals of the NCAA Tournament.

When asked to explain the benefit of having a good feel for what players can contribute each day, Calipari said that quality was part of the best of his UK teams.

“This is like a normal season for us . . . ,” he said. “We have not had one bad practice yet. We’ve gone through seasons without a bad practice.”

As he has done in earlier public appearances, Calipari spoke of the need to play at a fast pace. This team is equipped to do so, he said.

“They run faster than you think they can run . . . ,” he said. “They’ve been great. They’re trying. They’re running.”

Kentucky is No. 10 in The Associated Press preseason top 25 poll and the media’s pick to win the Southeastern Conference. Both tallies were announced this week.

Even with the upbeat tone typical of Media Day, Calipari offered a tempered reaction. “That’s all good,” he said. “We’ve got to play games and see what happens. It’s a long season. We may struggle early like we always do.”

The SEC “may be the best it’s ever been,” he added while implying that Kentucky typically has a good number of high-profile league opponents that television likes.

UK players arrive in Memorial Coliseum for Media Day interviews on Wednesday.
UK players arrive in Memorial Coliseum for Media Day interviews on Wednesday.

Office visit

Calipari said he called freshman Daimion Collins to his office.

The message the coach wanted to deliver?

“You’ve got to show me more,” said Calipari, who added that Collins had shot with 65-percent accuracy on two-point shots (pull-ups, floaters, layups) and 0 percent on threes.

“How about you drive more?” Calipari said he told the freshman. “ . . . Don’t be standing on the perimeter.”

The message was apparently received.

“Yesterday, he was ridiculous,” Calipari said.

Bobby pin reprise

Adolph Rupp, the founding father of Kentucky basketball, was superstitious. He considered finding bobby pins a sign of impending good luck.

Calipari said he also sees significance in bobby pins. Although earlier in his career, he considered finding a coin with the head side up as a sign of good luck.

Calipari recalled his UMass team playing Temple in an Atlantic 10 Conference championship game. UMass fans tried to guarantee good luck in the game.

“I went to sit down,” he said of walking to the team bench before the game. “There must have been 500 coins with the heads up. We didn’t win the game.

“I’m less and less superstitious.”

Then he added, “I do have bobby pins everywhere.”

Blue-White Game

While saluting the team’s practices, Calipari suggested this is no guarantee of good play in games, including the Blue-White Game on Friday.

“When the popcorn is popping and people are in the seats, guys seem to play differently,” he said.

Honoring Tubby

Calipari said he spoke to former UK Coach Tubby Smith on Wednesday morning. On Tuesday evening, UK announced that it will honor Smith before the game against his High Point team on Dec. 31.

Calipari said he told Smith, “I’ll be really ticked if your ovation is bigger than mine.”

This was said in jest and the two shared a laugh, he said.

Calipari likened Smith to another former UK coach, Joe B. Hall.

“I don’t think Coach Hall understood how much he was loved here . . . ,” Calipari said. “I want Tubby to understand.”

John Calipari speaks during Media Day activities on Wednesday in Memorial Coliseum. The UK coach said he likes the look of his team in preseason practices but added, “It’s a long season. We may struggle early like we always do.”
John Calipari speaks during Media Day activities on Wednesday in Memorial Coliseum. The UK coach said he likes the look of his team in preseason practices but added, “It’s a long season. We may struggle early like we always do.”

Cal to retire?

With Roy Williams retiring after last season and Mike Krzyzewski announcing he will retire after this season, Calipari was asked why he wasn’t retiring.

“They’re way older than me,” he said. “Both of them.”

Calipari is 62. Williams is 71, Krzyzewski 74.

Important upcoming UK dates

Oct. 22: Blue-White Scrimmage (7 p.m., SEC Network)

Oct. 29: Exhibition vs. Kentucky Wesleyan (7 p.m., SEC Network)

Nov. 5: Exhibition vs. Miles College (7 p.m., SEC Network)

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