LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Flashy scrimmages and lopsided exhibition victories have understandably raised expectations for one of Kentucky’s deepest rosters under coach John Calipari.
The top-ranked Wildcats are eager to see how all that depth stacks up in games that matter.
“We’re just finally able to play somebody else and it actually counts, so we’re excited,” sophomore forward Marcus Lee said.
Kentucky opens its season Friday night against Grand Canyon with an imposing combination of six returning regulars from last year’s NCAA runners-up, four highly-touted freshmen and an abundance of height. The result is a 12-deep roster that Calipari will make use of with a two-platoon system that was impressive this summer in the Bahamas and has drubbed NAIA schools such as Pikeville and Georgetown College by 48 and 69 points in the preseason.
The regular season presents a much greater challenge, however, and the coach wonders how his talented team will handle six games in 11 days. After Friday Kentucky plays Buffalo on Sunday before facing its first test Tuesday night against No. 5 Kansas in Indianapolis.
Calipari hopes this team with national championship projections is tested before then.
“We’re starting to come together,” Calipari said Thursday. “It’s really early, we need adversity so bad. We need to get hit in the mouth as soon as we can. We need to be down 10 and let’s figure out what we are.”
If the summer and preseason offered any clues, the Wildcats might not trail often no matter which platoon is playing.
Kentucky’s projected starting lineup is 7-foot junior Willie Cauley-Stein, 6-11 freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, 6-8 Alex Poythress and 6-6 sophomore twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison. This group was strong in both exhibitions and combined for 63 points in Sunday’s 121-52 rout of Georgetown.
“We learned that everybody is a fighter, everybody’s real competitive, everybody likes to play,” Poythress said of the preseason. “That’s what (Calipari) expects from people out there.”
If that rotation isn’t scary enough for opponents, another awaits with 7-0 sophomore Dakari Johnson, 6-10 Trey Lyles, 6-6 Devin Booker, Lee (6-9) and 5-9 Tyler Ulis. They’ve also shown their potential to dominate, the result of intense practices pitting the two units against the one another with little concern about how many minutes they play in games.
The Wildcats want that sacrifice to show from the start.
“With this team, it’s hard to be too different,” Lee said of chemistry between the units. “We’re with each other nonstop and just cohesive as a family, not just as a team. We flow with each other so well.”
Kentucky’s task is making it work in its inaugural meeting against Grand Canyon, coached by former NBA star Dan Majerle. The Phoenix school went 15-15 in its first season in Division I and begins as the media’s preseason second-place pick in the Western Athletic Conference.
Not bad for an Antelopes squad that returns just two starters in senior guard Jerome Garrison (16.5 points, 2.8 assists per game) and senior forward Daniel Alexander (12.7 points, 5.6 rebounds). But Majerle has landed former Washington State guard Royce Woolridge - the son of late former NBA player Orlando Woolridge - and has seven true or redshirt freshmen expected to contribute right away.
Of course, Calipari has built a reputation for grooming youngsters quickly in his career and especially with Kentucky’s stream of one-and-done freshmen. This year is quite different, with six of last year’s eight heralded recruits back to mesh with another stacked class.
It has given Calipari a luxury his counterparts would love to have and he’s eager to see how the combinations work now that the games mean something.
“Whether it works the first week or two weeks of the season doesn’t mean we’re not going to have to make adjustments,” he said. “Things are going to happen as the season goes on and we’ll just deal with them.
“Right now, they’ve all bought in. Right now, they’re taking pride in this,” Calipari added. “Going forward, that’s going to be the challenge.”
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