Kentucky opens title-seeking trek with group loaded with talented and hungry for success

LEXINGTON, Ky. – John Calipari is no stranger to expectations.

His annual influx of five-star talent has consistently led his Kentucky teams to preseason rankings in the top five in recent years. After cruising through four August exhibition games in the Bahamas against professional teams, Calipari’s new Kentucky squad is poised to be among his most-hyped yet.

“I’m not intoxicated by this,” Calipari said after the Bahamas trip. “At the end of the day we should be a monster defensive team, we should be a great rebounding team, we should be a team that can fly up and down the court and put pressure on you both sides of the ball. And we should be a team that shares, because we’ve got a lot of guys that are skilled enough to play that way. And it seems to me we’ve got some dogs. … I like to have a couple dogs on our team that will not back away.”

When sophomore forward PJ Washington elected to pull his name out of the NBA draft in May, Kentucky’s roster already featured three former five-star point guards, a projected lottery pick on the wing, three former five-star post players and the blend of returning experience and freshman talent that has characterized Calipari’s best Kentucky teams.

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Those facts didn’t stop Calipari from adding to his riches with five-star point guard Ashton Hagans, who moved from the 2019 class to the 2018 class to enroll this summer, and Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis, a two-time first-team all-Pac 12 player and former McDonald’s All-American.

Five-star freshman forward EJ Montgomery, the top-ranked recruit in the signing class according to the 247Sports Composite, didn’t play in the last three Bahamas games because of a back injury, but Kentucky cruised in each, including 100-64 over Mega Bemax, a Serbian professional team featuring two NBA draft prospects that beat Michigan 12 days later.

“Honestly, we felt like we didn’t really play to our potential,” Washington said. “We feel like we can play a lot better than we did. We’ve just got to improve on the defensive end, which is going to lead to better offense. We’ve just got a lot more work to do, and we know that.”

It’s that veteran leadership from Washington, Travis and sophomores Quade Green and Nick Richards that could be the biggest boost to Kentucky’s chances to match its preseason accolades instead of falling into the traps freshman-heavy rosters ranked in the top three preseason did in four of the last five seasons.

“Nobody is going to get caught up in the hype,” Green said. “We’re going to set that tone early in the locker room. … Got to come in here and work and be a team. If you’re not part of the team, we’re going to call you out. That’s what everybody is doing so far, so we have nothing to worry about.”

Calipari’s efforts to pump the brakes on the excitement surrounding his team have largely fallen on deaf ears in Lexington since the Bahamas trip.

Most preseason rankings have slotted Kentucky at No. 1 or No. 2, and a likely top-five season-opening matchup against Duke will bring immediate national focus to the team.

Expectations for individual players have soared as well, especially freshman guard Tyler Herro, the lone 2018 signee not named to the McDonald’s All-America game who led the team in scoring in the Bahamas and has drawn comparisons to everyone from Devin Booker to Rex Chapman to Larry Bird.

Even Calipari has a difficult time holding back his glee when talking about the work ethic of Herro and the rest of his freshmen as evidenced by the frequent late-night players-only workout sessions in the Bahamas.

“I really like this team,” Calipari said. “They like each other. … When everybody is putting in the time and working and are comfortable in their own skin they can be about each other. ‘I’m happy with me, so I’ll be happy with you and I’m happy with your success because it doesn’t infringe on my thing.’ But if you’re not that way, if you try to trick somebody, normally you’re the guy that tries to bring people down. We don’t have any of that on this team.”

Upon returning from NBA workouts, Washington quickly noticed a difference in the latest batch of five-star freshmen.

Throughout last season, Calipari bemoaned the reluctance of some of his players to follow the lead of his former player Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who put in extra individual work in the gym and weight room away from practice.

“I feel like they’re a lot more hungry than some of the guys we had last year,” Washington said. “They’re in the gym a lot more, they’re really curious, they ask a lot of questions and they’re just trying to be the best version of themselves, which is what you need to be a better team.”

Calipari reports his returning players have responded to the tone set by the freshmen while maintaining the leadership roles their experience dictates.

That combination was key in 2011-12 when freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist dragged his older teammates to early-morning workouts and veterans such as Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller played key roles in the run to a national title.

The 2012 national title team and the 2014-15 squad that won its first 38 games before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four will be the standards the current Kentucky team is judged by. The 38-1 team also jump-started its season with a preseason exhibition tour of the Bahamas.

Now this team will have to prove its preseason hype can match those squads’ in-season success.

“We learned a lot (in the Bahamas),” Calipari said. “I didn’t see anyone on our team who was afraid.”

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