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September 30, 2012

Kentucky reloads in quest for second straight NCAA title

John Calipari scoffs in the face of convention, and so it stands to reason that his first-ever NCAA title defense would be atypical.

Still, the Kentucky basketball coach followed protocol. Once the afterglow had faded from his team's 2012 title, he sought out a championship coach to for pointers on the prospect of doing it again. In Calipari's case, the conversation came with Alabama football coach Nick Saban, who warned of the complacency that came in 2010 after his Crimson Tide took the title in 2009.

It was "really good stuff," Calipari said.

But for Kentucky, it hardly applies.

"It's not like, 'OK, (we) won and now how are you going to guard against complacency?'" Calipari said. "How about we change the whole team and no one's on the team? How about that one? There's one way of changing it."

Seven players played the most important parts in the Wildcats' NCAA championship run. Six of them - Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller - have moved on to the NBA, five of those with eligibility remaining.

There are six players on Calipari's 2012-13 roster who didn't play a minute for the Wildcats last season. Only sophomore Kyle Wiltjer played more than 2.8 minutes per game.

"This is a new team," Calipari said. "We don't even know how we're going to play. Literally, we don't know how we're going to play yet."

Kentucky has reloaded in the pursuit of another championship. For the fourth consecutive year, the Wildcats boast Rivals.com's top-ranked recruiting class, headlined by the No. 2 player in the 2012 Rivals150, forward Nerlens Noel.He's joined by forward Alex Poythress, shooting guard Archie Goodwin and center Willie Cauley-Stein.

And for the first time in Calipari's UK tenure, the Cats have bolstered the roster with Division I transfers. Point guard Ryan Harrow is eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer from N.C. State; guard Julius Mays is immediately eligible after graduating from Wright State with a year of eligibility remaining.

As usual, Kentucky has talent and lacks experience.

And, as usual, it's expected to compete for the NCAA title anyway.

Sporting News ranked UK No. 5 in its preseason Top 25. ESPN put UK fourth. Sports Illustrated's preseason power rankings had the Cats at No. 4.

Most polls have Indiana and Louisville ahead of the Wildcats. The Hoosiers and Cardinals are among a host of teams returning key players from NCAA Tournament clubs, the more traditional preseason Top 10 team.

"(Other highly-ranked teams) have the same teams back," Calipari said. "They're just going to touch up. They add a couple guys to see if they can get better and they build on a base. Well, we have no base."

That won't be uncharted territory for Calipari. Each of his first three UK teams has been dominated by freshmen. This season, he could start three or four of them.

But there's talent.

"I think we should be a great team," Poythress said. "We're going to be athletic. We're going to be long. We're going to be able to run up and down the court. We'll be a great defensive team. We've got pieces of the puzzle. We'll be nice at the end of the year."

The early part of it, though, could be bumpy. Calipari said Kentucky could start 0-2 - it opens the season with neutral-site games against Maryland and Duke - and that he expects his team to take time to round into form.

But he compares this team to his 2010-11 squad that took a while to find its footing but ultimately advanced to the Final Four, losing to eventual champion Connecticut in an NCAA semifinal.

Jones, Lamb and Miller returned last season after playing key parts in that Final Four run, and with so much less experience, it's unlikely that these Cats will be the almost-wire-to-wire wonders that last season's were.

Still, the expectation is that Kentucky will contend again. And that's fine by the Wildcats.

"There definitely is pressure, but just having a general like Coach Cal who just really knows how to take care of his players and really put them in a great position to win, that takes pressure off…," Noel said. " We're working hard for him to get (UK's) ninth championship."

Winning the school's eighth hasn't changed Calipari much, Wiltjer said. He's still the same driven, committed coach he was a year ago.

Only now, he has a whole new challenge.

"That thing's done," Calipari said. "None of these guys were even a part of that. We're worried about being the best team we can be. And does that mean we could be better than last year? Maybe."




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