Internal competition isn’t a choice with this deep Kentucky team

John Calipari has said he can’t save his players from competition. The problem last year was he didn’t have a choice.

Last season, Kentucky lacked depth, which played a major factor in the competition level at practice. When Nerlens Noel was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, players like Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein were forced to go up against the significantly shorter and less skilled walk-ons.

In other cases, when players needed to come out and learn from the bench, Calipari couldn’t pull them because there wasn’t someone else he could plug in. There simply weren’t enough players.

“I know there is a number that is too many, but you can’t do what we did a year ago, and that was my own (doing),” Calipari said, referring to his choice to not recruit more players in the 2012 class.

Therein may lie the biggest difference in this year’s team compared to last. With eight McDonald’s All-Americans overall and the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, this team has a ton of depth, which has forced players to improve their games in practices.

Like Coach Cal said, you can’t hide players from competition.

At Southeastern Conference Media Day last week, Calipari informed reporters that NBA scouts are telling him that games will get in the way of evaluating this team. In other words, they would rather evaluate these guys on their battles in practices than games against other opponents. According to them, the competition in UK’s practices is that good.

A chunk of players on UK’s practice court were ranked near the top of their respective positions nationally. As veteran Jon Hood put it, “We’re stacked in every position.”

Hood said the level of talent and competition forces players to improve.

“Anytime you’re playing against great players, you’re always going to be pushed to be better or get out of the way,” Hood said.

Jarrod Polson is pushing the Harrison twins to take their games to the next level, and vice versa. (photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)

This season, Kentucky has a deep bench with a variety of skilled players.

“We just have a lot more guys than last year,” Cauley-Stein said. “If someone got hurt you didn’t have that competition anymore. Like this year we probably got three guys in each position so if one person goes down, you got another dude just as good as him that comes in and fills up and plays a little different so you gotta figure out how to play against him. You can’t just get used to playing against one guy.”

Better competition can be specifically seen with the Kentucky big men.

There are six big guys going at each other in practice every day with freshmen Julius Randle, Marcus Lee, Dakari Johnson, Derek Willis and returners Cauley-Stein and Poythress. Each player brings in something unique to the table that the other players have to compete against and learn how to defend.

Randle is the finisher who’s capable of dominating inside and is expanding his game to the perimeter. Lee is the energetic, explosive pogo stick. Johnson, the biggest player pound for pound on the team, has a dominant presence in the paint and is capable of scoring with his back to the basket. Cauley-Stein is the experienced, athletic tree who can get out and run in transition and block shots. Poythress, who also brings experience, is transitioning to more of a wing. Factor in Willis, who is highly skilled and has been better in practice than some expected, and the front court becomes really deep.

Those different styles contribute to the high level of competition.

According to Coach Cal, Johnson is better than he thought he was coming in to preseason practice and is adding an element to practice the Cats didn’t have last year.

“He’s one of those bigs that we’ve had to play against that puts his body on you and you have to do something,” Calipari said. “One guy can’t do it. So he’s better than I thought, and that’s really going to challenge Willie.”

Johnson knew from the start that the competition would be tough in practice. He said the level of talent, which leads to greater competition, is the reason he came to UK.

“Each day when you’re going up against guys that are either your height or taller, you know you’re going to have to elevate your play,” Johnson said. “It’s really helping me and improving me as a player. In high school I could take days off but each and every day you have to put your foot on the pedal and just keep on pushing.”

For someone like Poythress, who didn’t have teammates who could physically match up with him in practice last year, going up against someone like Randle every day is making him more versatile.

“I think Alex looks around and says, maybe let me play the three some,” Calipari said. “I don’t have to play this way. Let me go against this guy. I think that’s going to be there. But we can play big, we can play small.”

The varying styles of competition applies to the guards and wings as well.

Calipari said freshman Dominique Hawkins is what Aaron and Andrew Harrison need. Hawkins  is someone who isn’t going to back down from a competitive challenge. His fearlessness to take on anyone was one of the reasons why Coach Calipari offered him a scholarship after Kentucky’s state tournament last spring.

“I think what Dominique (Hawkins) can do for Andrew and Aaron (is) what they need to see,” Calipari said. “He’s (the opposing guard) going to be about 6-1. He’s going to be a tough, hard-nosed, physical (guard). Well, that’s what Dominique is.”

Jarrod Polson, who has competed against talented players like Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb over the years, said players are getting better from the competition on all areas of the court.

“We have two or three players that are playing at every position and they’re trying to get a starting spot, so you really can’t take any breaks in practice,” Polson said. “You’re always having to go against someone that’s better than you or just a little bit worse than you. So it’s really good for us. We’re all getting better from it.”

Lee, a McDonald’s All-American, said there was nothing on the high school all-star circuit last year that compares to the competition in UK’s practices.

“Most of our players have been in the top leagues and coming out of high school with the Nike league and such, that there’s nothing compared to our practice,” Lee said. “We go so hard every second of practice, battling, trying to just get everybody together so we’re battling as hard as possible.”

The practices have been so good that Calipari caught himself one day singing on the way home from practice.

“I went home and I was singing to myself and back and ready (to) start talking crap again,” he said. “Then what popped in my mind? Oh my gosh, these guys are all going to leave. Where’s my phone? And now I’m calling (recruits). I made two calls before I got home, and you know I don’t live that far from here. It’s the life we chose, I guess you could say.”

With depth, soaring talent and tough competition in practice, Coach Calipari has a little time to relax and enjoy his team.

“It’s back to where we were,” Calipari said.