Practice report: Starting all over again

As his players undergo summer workouts for the first time – the NCAA has a new rule that allows coaches two hours a week to work with their teams during the summer – John Calipari has made two comments about his new team that have stood out.

“You won’t believe this, but we’re going to be really young again,” Calipari said Monday.

Tuesday he followed up with this: “Don’t tell anyone, but we’re going to be good again next year.”

He couldn’t be more right about both.

Watching parts of Tuesday’s one-hour workout and all of Wednesday’s one-hour practice, I had the chance to watch most of the 2012-13 basketball team for the first time as Coach Cal begins to reassemble and rebuild another team basically from scratch.

Gone are the familiar faces of Darius Miller, Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. In their place are new, even younger faces in Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein.

It’s a new crop full of inexperienced freshmen, but Calipari has once again reeled in a group of highly talented players. Below are my observations, notes and opinions of the last couple of days of practice. They do not reflect Coach Cal’s or anyone else’s opinion.

On to the notes:

  • Though Tuesday was the fifth team workout of the summer, it was the first time Julius Mays was able to participate. Nerlens Noel and walk-ons Sam Malone and Brian Long were not present.
  • Without Noel, Malone and Long in attendance, the first thing you notice is that this isn’t a deep team in terms of numbers. Only nine guys were on the court both days, which allowed Calipari to focus more of his attention on the individual players. Since the summer workouts are focused on teaching and installing bits and pieces of the offense, 10 guys aren’t needed to scrimmage and play five-on-five. However, Malone and Long will be needed for practice depth once the season rolls around. Noel will obviously be needed in the front court for major minutes. When Calipari split the team into back-court and front-court drills, Kyle Wiltjer and Cauley-Stein were the only “bigs.” Jon Hood and Poythress were used as big men in the drills that required more front-court depth.
  • If you followed last year’s practice reports, you’ll remember how I talked about the development of the team from the early practices to the end of the year. What started as basic, small principles at the beginning of the season turned into a fluid, well-oiled championship team. It was fascinating to watch. That process has been turned upside down again as new players must learn the system for the first time. Everything is back to basics. What Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist could do in their sleep by March last season, players like Poythress and Goodwin must learn for the first time. For a guy like Mays, a fifth-year senior, it’s doubly as difficult. While Mays is a polished college player who picked up great techniques and a propensity for scoring at other schools, here he must learn things that may have gone against the grain at his previous stops. He doesn’t have a lot of bad habits to break, but there are nonetheless a few things he is picking up for the first time.
  • An example of the work Calipari is doing with Mays: During the opening parts of Tuesday’s practice, Calipari was trying to get Mays to take bigger steps to get around screens and get off a shot. Mays looked a little awkward doing it at first, but he seemed to progress as the practice wore on. It’s only a small sample size of two days, but he looks to be UK’s best spot-up shooter. He really shined from the corner during a shooting drill to end Wednesday’s practice.
  • Despite the newness of everything for the first-year players, they look eager to learn. Sure, there are some looks of confusion, but everyone seems to be soaking in what Coach Cal had to say. Calipari was patient with them, but they’re also quick learners.
  • As for the returners’ approaches, there appears to be an aura of leadership. If there is a look to being a veteran, guys like Wiltjer, Hood, Jarrod Polson, Twany Beckham and Ryan Harrow seem to have it. Maybe it’s the comfort of being in the system before or the confidence of being older. Whatever the case, it’s there – yes, even for a guy like Wiltjer, who is only a sophomore. Remember, Wiltjer is the leading returner and looks like it on the court.
  • Physically speaking, Poythress and Goodwin are more than ready to perform at the college level. I don’t know that I would call Goodwin ripped – he definitely needs to put on weight – but he is super athletic and extremely fast. Poythress, on the other hand, is a man child. A beast. A physical specimen. He’s already a strong guy and you can tell he has the frame to put on even more muscle. He already looks like the most athletic player on UK’s team and he’s going to be a major matchup problem for opposing teams. If Calipari uses him on the wing, he is going to absolutely overpower people. If he plays down low, he’ll blow past defenders.
  • There were a number of examples of Poythress’ athleticism, but the alley-oop he threw down off an errant pass stood out Tuesday. Catching a pass that was well below his neck – as he was already in the air, mind you –he coiled the ball behind his body, winded up and threw down a nasty one-hand windmill dunk. It was both ferocious and effortless.
  • Assistant coach Kenny Payne, who is responsible for developing UK’s big men over the last couple of years, put a lot of individual work in with Wiltjer and Cauley-Stein on Tuesday. He worked on some basic footwork with them to get them in position to score down low. At one point he had the players using weighted balls to work on their explosion. For one, Wiltjer looks a lot more explosive than last year (more on that in a bit).
  • Surely you’ve heard Coach Cal call Cauley-Stein underrated. Watch him for 10 minutes and you’ll understand why. He may be the least heralded of UK’s four-man freshman class, but the guy is really talented. Not only is he tall, he’s long (there’s a difference). He has a great vertical jump so lob dunks will still be a big part of the offense, but he’s also extremely fast. During sprints on Wednesday, Calipari noticed that Cauley-Stein gallops like a gazelle. “This becomes a problem,” Calipari said. “Willie just showed me he’s fast. If Willie’s not finishing first or second (in our sprints), we’ve got a problem. You’re making (Kyle) run faster than he ever has. That’s good. We’re helping each other.” Calipari said speed could be one of the strengths of this team.
  • Speaking of Wiltjer’s speed, he looks a lot faster and more mobile. He’s going to be asked to play down low more this year because of the limited front-court depth, but he will still play a lot on the perimeter because of his knockdown shot. His stroke remains sweet and his improved foot speed should free up the midrange jumper as he learns to pump fake and get around defenders.
  • Wiltjer’s newfound speed and craftiness were on display during one of Wednesday’s 2-on-1 drills. The sophomore big man raced down the court with the ball, faked a pass to Polson and laid it over Poythress with his left hand. Not many people will be able to do that on Poythress this season.
  • Calipari installed a lot of pick-and-roll action during the workout Tuesday. If you can remember back to last year, it was his work with Dominican Republic team and FIBA basketball that re-opened Calipari’s eyes to the pick-and-roll. It played a vital part in last season’s national championship run.
  • Hood isn’t 100 percent physically and is wearing a brace on the knee he injured a year ago, but you can tell he’s been working on his jump shot during rehab. There’s a lot more arc to it and he’s been knocking down his jumper with greater regularity. There is certainly an opportunity for Hood to play significant minutes this season.
  • At the end of Tuesday’s practice, Calipari began installing the Dribble Drive Motion Offense for the first time. It was pretty basic stuff – handoff, drives, layups – but the offense isn’t overly complex to begin with. It emphasizes beating your man off the dribble and driving for layups. As Calipari has told all of his teams with frequency, “This isn’t a play, I’m teaching you basketball.” Calipari told his players that the direction they drive to or the player they pass the ball to is the spot on the floor they are replacing. In essence, if Harrow drives right and kicks to Poythress in the corner, that’s where he’s going after Poythress drives the ball.
  • It remains to be seen how the much-smaller Harrow will fare physically compared to Cal’s previous lead guards, but he is definitely an above-average shooter with serious hops. I said last year he was the best pound-for-pound dunker on the team, and he, in all likelihood, is again this year. He blew past defenders on Wednesday with frequency and finished off a couple of layups in traffic that even Davis may not have been able to block.
  • Calipari introduced Wednesday some of his 2-on-1 and 2-on-2 drills that will become a staple of every practice for the rest of the season. In an offense that emphasizes beating your man and getting layups, the drills are essential to the season’s success.
  • A couple of things the aforementioned drills stress: (1.) Don’t get your shot blocked. Calipari would rather his players miss the layup so someone else can tip it in than get the shot blocked and end the play. (2.) Play fast and don’t stutter step. Mays had a couple of problems with this and it led to a couple of his shots getting blocked. When they reach the foul line, Calipari wants them going straight up for the layup. (3.) Play through bumps. Calipari asked Wiltjer how teams tried to play them last year. “They tried to play physical,” Wiltjer said. Calipari quickly responded, “They tried to beat the crap out of us.” (4.) Play fast.  “You’ve got to be able to play fast and think. We’re not there yet, but we shouldn’t be at this point.”
  • Beckham could see some minutes this season as a lockdown defender. He showed a willingness to defend last season in limited opportunities and Calipari praised him Wednesday for playing physical. Polson also looked more focused in the two sessions. The junior guard will battle for minutes at point guard this season.
  • At the end of practice, Calipari briefly huddled up his team and informed them he would be gone for the next week as he coaches the Dominican Republic at the 2012 FIBA Olympic World Qualifying Tournament. Calipari said he will either give them the week off or have them work out with assistant coach John Robic. Overall, though, Calipari loves what he sees so far, especially for a team that is still without a very big piece in Noel. “Today we went in and advanced. It was sloppy, but we got what we needed to get in.” Calipari said it was the first day his team really went at it with each other. He ended with “way to get better, guys.” At this very early point in the season, that’s what it’s all about.