The gold-plated NCAA national championship trophy still sits outside the men’s basketball office at the Joe Craft Center in a trophy case. Just below it, light refracts through the National Association of College Basketball Coaches national championship crystal ball.
Unless they grow legs, find the keys to the case and walk out of the building, the trophies aren’t going anywhere. They’re safe and secure inside the halls of UK’s practice facility, still the symbols of Kentucky’s 2012 national championship.
The 2012-13 Kentucky Wildcats have no responsibility to those trophies. They are not defending anything this season.
“We’re not trying to defend anything,” Calipari said. “The trophy is in the case. That’s done.”
As Kentucky gets set to embark on a new campaign, Coach Cal has a message for the rest of the country: This is a new team with new players who have new opponents in their way, new issues to face and new goals to achieve.
That message would seem obvious for a program that must replace a handful of NBA players every year, but based on some of the preseason polls that have been released, one would assume Coach Cal returns several key pieces from last year’s championship squad.
Newsflash, he doesn’t. This may be the most he’s ever had to replace.
Losing six players to the NBA Draft, UK has parted ways with a whopping 93.3 percent of its scoring and 87.3 percent of its rebounding from a year ago. Kyle Wiltjer is the only player who averaged more than 2.8 minutes last season, and even he is just a sophomore.
As a matter of fact, Kentucky doesn’t return a single player from last year who made a start during the previous season. Calipari said UK is the only team in the nation that does that.
Flip through the preseason publications on magazine racks and you would never know. No one has Kentucky outside the top five.
“This is a new team,” Coach Cal said. “We don’t even know how we’re going to play. Literally, we don’t know how we’re going to play yet. And that’s the disadvantage. You have all these teams that know how they’re going to play. They have the same team back. They’re just going to touch up. They added a couple of guys to see if they can get better, and then they build that base. Well, we have no base.”
The base is once again made up of some of the top recruits in the nation. As Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones Darius Miller, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb walked through the swinging door and on to the NBA, in filed Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin, Willie Cauley-Stein and transfer Julius Mays.
But the base, as it has been every year, is young and inexperienced. Coach Cal has proven that young talent can win over the course of the season, but it often takes time and a certain type of chemistry.
With Maryland and Duke on the opening-season schedule, Calipari said UK could start 2012-13 with two losses and still be in position to compete for a national title at the end of the year. As he preached so often last season and the year before, especially during the 2011-12 conference schedule when Kentucky lost six Southeastern Conference games, it’s all about being in a position to compete for a national title at the end of the journey, not necessarily at the beginning.
“We just want to be up to bat,” Calipari said.
Even so, the players understand that they will be everyone else’s national championship game. Like or it not, returner or newcomer, they carry both the honor and the burden of being the previous national champions. Even if the Cats aren’t trying to defend the title, their competition will play like they are trying to steal it.
“We know with the guys doing outstanding last year and winning the national championship, everybody is going to be coming at us even though we weren’t the ones who won it,” Mays said. “Everybody is coming at the Kentucky team. We know walking in every gym we’re going to get everybody’s best game. As a university, we’re the defending national champions. Going in every gym, it’s going to be everybody’s national championship game.”
Because there are few programs that can measure up to Kentucky’s expectations, Calipari said there were few people he reached out to in the offseason on how to handle the aftermath of his first championship.
“You’re at Kentucky,” Coach Cal said. “I can ask the guy that sat in this seat. Other than that … this is a different animal.”
If there is someone and some program that (maybe) could relate, it’s Nick Saban and Alabama.
Viewed under a similar pressure-packed, expectation-riddled microscope that Alabama is on the college football level, Calipari talked with Saban about guarding against complacency.
Calipari said the conversation was “really good stuff” and said they concluded a lot of letdowns occur from taking “your eye off the ball,” but even Saban’s returning teams featured a foundation of experience.
“We talk about drinking the poison all the time, but this is different here because this is a brand new team,” Coach Cal said. “I mean, it’s not like OK, you won, how are you going to guard against complacency? How about we change the whole team and no one is on the team (from last year). There’s one way of changing it. The only thing I can do is what I do, which is I’m worried about this team, how good can we be.”
Rebuilding from year to year, albeit difficult, doesn’t bother Calipari as much as some people think. In fact, he said it invigorates and challenges him.
“It’s exciting,” Calipari said. “I mean think about it, you wake up every day and your whole plight is how do I make this thing better for these guys? How do I figure this stuff out?”
At some point, the annual rebuilding and the pressure of meeting national championship expectations could wear on Coach Cal. If and when it gets to that point, Calipari will likely walk away.
But speaking to reporters before the season started, he sounded like a rejuvenated man ready to make a run at another championship. He said he took more time off this offseason than he ever has to recharge the batteries, and oftentimes he found himself sneaking over to the gym to get in some basketball time.
“I’m ready,” Calipari said.
He said the only time he took during the offseason to reflect on the title was when he watched a YouTube video created by a fan that recapped the journey the program has been on over the last three years and some of the major highlights.
Other than that video, it’s been full speed ahead on a new goal, a new national title dream for Calipari and his team.
“You look back on that in its entirety and you say kind of like, ‘Daggone it. Whew!’ ” Calipari said. “And then you just say, ‘I don’t want to think about that because we’ve got to move on here and we’ve got other stuff.’ ”
There’s a new trophy to chase after. The one in the trophy case isn’t going anywhere.