How optimistic is John Calipari about Kentucky’s team in 2021-22? ‘I’m jacked.’

By Jerry Tipton

LEXINGTON, Ky. — During a teleconference Tuesday, Kentucky coach John Calipari was asked what player or players had been better than expected in preseason practices so far.

“I could go right down the line,” he said.

That included everyone except two who have not yet participated: CJ Fredrick, who underwent surgery for a broken leg earlier this summer, and a second player whom Calipari did not identify.

“You could name 10 guys,” he said of the surprisingly good list.

The message Calipari seemed to convey was that the 2020-21 season — which saw UK endure only its second losing record (9-16) since 1927 — was an aberration. It would not be a factor going forward, not even as a learning tool.

“My thing is I’m moving on,” Calipari said. “I’m excited about coaching. That’s going to be a blip on the screen. … I’m not looking back. I don’t have a rearview mirror. I’m looking forward.

“I’m jacked about where we are, where we’re headed, how the recruiting is going. … You can tell that I’m, like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get this started.’ ”

Calipari likened the 2021-22 team to the best he has had at Kentucky. There’s a combination of highly regarded freshmen, plus a core of experienced players.

Calipari spoke of the players donating 10% of their name, image and likeness profits to charity as a sign of effective leadership.

The depth of talent should produce competitive practices that lead to individual improvement, he said.

Plus, unlike at this time last year, coronavirus precautions have been eased enough to enhance team bonding, he said. “You never see one or two guys (in the gym). You see six or seven.”

Three areas often cited as contributing to the losing record last season were point guard play, perimeter shooting and lack of a physical presence around the basket.

Calipari was asked about all three. His answers came with an optimistic tone.

The point guard position was unsettled until February when UK coaches reluctantly moved Davion Mintz there. The coaches were hesitant of the move adversely affecting Mintz’s shooting.

For this coming season, Calipari spoke of Kentucky having not one, not two, not three but four viable point guard options.

Transfer Sahvir Wheeler, who led the Southeastern Conference in assists last season for Georgia, has exuded confidence. Calipari spoke of being hesitant to put Wheeler, who is listed at 5-foot-9, at the front of a press.

“’Coach, I’m almost 6-5,’ ” Calipari recalled Wheeler saying. So, the UK coach added, “I put him in front of the press. He’s almost 6-5.”

Freshman TyTy Washington is better than expected, Calipari said.

The UK coach reminded listeners that transfer Kellan Grady played point guard for Davidson against Kentucky in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

“So, we have options,” Calipari said. “I’m really excited. And seeing how they’re playing, I think it’s brought guys together because it’s really about playing for each other. And I think that’s helped us, too.”

Calipari spoke of Kentucky’s shooting being better even if the players did not make one of the 10 3-point shots attempted in a competition Sunday.

“We do have more shooters,” he said. How many more? Enough to possibly make shooting a non-factor in determining playing time.

“We may end up playing the best five defenders,” Calipari said. “Like, if you can’t guard, this may be a hard time to get on the floor.”

UK fans might recall Calipari complaining about his team getting “manhandled” by Georgia Tech last season. The Cats never established a presence around the basket.

Calipari spoke of sophomore Lance Ware and transfer Oscar Tshiebwe providing physical strength. Freshman Daimion Collins can be a rim protector/shot blocker.

“So, we have the pieces,” Calipari said of Kentucky’s front line. “How we fit them together, that’s going to happen over the season.”

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