ST. LOUIS - As a guru of the one-and-done movement in college basketball, Kentucky's John Calipari is well-versed in coaching young teams. But his national championship from two years ago that featured No. 1 draft pick Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist still had some upperclassmen in key positions.
This season's all-freshman starting lineup is a new experience, even for Calipari. Thanks to the hype from Internet recruiting mavens, the Wildcats came into the season ranked No. 1 in all the major preseason polls before playing their way out of the Top 25 for a while.
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They entered this NCAA Tournament as a more humble group that got a much-needed confidence boost from losing to No. 1 Florida by one point in the SEC Tournament title game. Kentucky (24-10) climb- ed back into the coaches' poll at No. 22 but was seeded eighth in a tough Midwest Regional game against ninth-seeded Kansas State (20-12) last night at Scottrade Center.
"This is another chance for us to validate what people said we could do at the beginning of the year," guard Aaron Harrison said. "We were preseason No. 1, and we can end up at the end of the season No. 1 as well. As long as we fight and stay together, I think we have a good shot."
Before the conference tournament last week, Calipari said he put his young team through an SEC-style "football" practice in which he encouraged them to foul and pound on each other and play through the tough stuff they'll face in the tournament. Discussing the long learning curve, it sounded as if Calipari needed to knock the prima donna out of a group of athletes accustomed to hearing nothing but superlatives.
"This team I was hard [on] probably longer than other teams," Calipari said. "But from body language to habits to other things, you couldn't cheer them on those things. They were not acceptable . . . It helps them later. They understand what is acceptable and what is not.
"Now, you're seeing a team that is playing more together, that shows less emotion. People always say I coach young teams. I've never coached five freshmen [starters], so, it's taken longer. But it doesn't matter that it took longer, just that they're starting to get it."
One move that helped, Calipari said, was playing 7-foot center Dakari Johnson from Brooklyn together with 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein. Put those two alongside 6-9 forward Julius Randle, hyped as a top NBA draft pick along with Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Duke's Jabari Parker, and the improvement in the Wildcats' defense is dramatic.
"It changed the whole game," Calipari said. "Two seven-footers. Willie plays like a [small forward], and Dakari is a moose. It's something we'll go to because they played so well together against Florida."