The straight line that produced the biggest laugh at Kentucky basketball’s Media Day on Thursday involved this question: Might John Calipari invite his perceived coaching nemesis, Rick Pitino, to speak to the UK players?
Of course, archrival Louisville fired Pitino as coach a year ago in the wake of an FBI investigation into college basketball corruption.
“Probably wouldn’t have him come talk to the team,” Calipari said. Then after a well-timed comedic pause, he added, “It would put North Korea on the back burner. Let me just say that.”
Of course, Media Day officially tips off the ultra-serious business of another Kentucky basketball season. That season begins with earnestness turned up to an 11 with a game against Duke on Nov. 6.
Calipari tried to put the game in perspective.
“I would say that game will be just another game for us at that point unless we win, then it’s huge; It’s a huge game,” he joked. “But the reality of it is, it is so early. It’s a game that we’ll learn about where we are at that point, and so will they. Where are they and where they need to go.”
In terms of significance come NCAA Tournament time, Calipari likened the Duke game to when Kentucky played UCLA in early December of 2016.
UCLA beat UK in Rupp Arena. Then an entirely different game unfolded when the teams played in the NCAA Tournament the following March. Kentucky won the rematch.
“We agreed to do it, but it’s just a hard game,” Calipari said of the opener against Duke with a tone of resignation. “It’s a hard game for Duke, too. . . . It’s just a hard game out of the gate playing a program that has really good players and is really well-coached and is not intimidated by the scenery. . . .
“But it wakes you up early in the morning.”
As for this coming season’s Kentucky team, Calipari hit on several already-familiar themes.
He doesn’t have to coach effort. “Now, you know what you’re coaching? Basketball,” he said. “And I love coaching basketball.”
Calipari likened coaching effort to “taking a guy to the dentist. . . . It’s painful for them and it’s painful for me.”
The current Cats resemble his UMass teams, Calipari said. That might be his ultimate compliment.
“Now, my UMass teams were that way, and they all had had a chip on their shoulder because we were UMass and people, they never really got their due the players felt,” Calipari said. “This team kind of feels that way.”
That might seem odd given a UK roster that boasts seven McDonald’s All-Americans and a team that can boast a consensus top-10 ranking in preseason polls.
“They were rated high, but they think they’re better than so-and-so,” Calipari said, “and (they wonder) ‘why they’re saying I’m not as good as him.’”
It this case, so-and-so would seem to be Duke’s heralded freshmen. R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson were all rated ahead of any Kentucky freshman by recruiting analysts.
Several UK players all but scoffed at the suggestion that this represented a slight that could be addressed when the Wildcats open the season against Duke in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis.
But PJ Washington agreed that Kentucky freshmen could be motivated by the rankings.
“Of course,” he said. “They’re supposed to look at it that way. I know for a fact, all of them do. I know all of them are ready for it, and all of them are prepared to go out and play our game. And I feel we’ll be all right in the end.”
Immanuel Quickley acknowledged that it was no accident that UK players sounded like they had memorized a script when responding to questions about Duke. Yes, a big game. But just one game. All the games will be fun. March is the time to make a statement about who’s better.
His mother is an English teacher who grades his ability to respond to media questions, he said. “Always pump up your teammates,” he said of her advice. “Stuff like that. Just the basic 101 stuff.
“We get a lot of training here as well. Eric (Lindsey, director of athletics communications) and Miss Deb (Deborah Moore, associate director of communications) do a good job to help us with interview questions.”
When asked to explain the do’s and don’ts UK players receive, Quickley said, “I won’t go into too much detail.”
Keldon Johnson went so far as to compliment Duke freshmen for their lofty status.
“I guess it’s cool they’re getting buzz,” he said. “We just keep our heads down and work. We’re getting ready for our season.”
Important upcoming dates
Oct. 12: Big Blue Madness
Oct. 21: Blue-White Game
Oct. 26: Exhibition vs. Transylvania
Nov. 2: Exhibition vs. Indiana-Pennsylvania
Nov. 6: Season opener vs. Duke at Champions Classic in Indianapolis