As Kentucky prepares for its exhibition opener, John Calipari sounds like a coach who is bracing fans for a bumpy start.
"We just got a long way to go," the UK coach said of Thursday's exhibition game against Northwood (Fla.) University. "Defensively, we're just awful right now. We don't stay in front of anybody. We got guys stopping left and right and thinking it's OK. ‘It wasn't my man,' stuff like that."
Calipari's concerns deepened after watching NAIA program Northwood compete with Tom Izzo's Michigan State squad for more than half of Tuesday's exhibition game in East Lansing before faltering down the stretch in an 85-57 loss.
"The greatest thing about playing a team like this, the No. 1 team in the NAIA and a team that was down six to Michigan State at the half, who made nine 3s and has some post-up game and really quick guards, is that the weaknesses and the things that we are not doing well will be glaring," Calipari said.
"So as much as I do not like to play a team like this early, this is going to be great for this team because the more I watch on tape and the more I keep seeing, they've got to change."
Calipari said Northwood coach Rollie Massimino approached him about the idea of playing an exhibition game. The veteran coach, who led Villanova to a stunning upset of top-ranked Georgetown in the 1985 national championship game at Rupp Arena, wanted to return to the site of his greatest triumph before retiring.
At the time of the initial conversation, Calipari claimed he did not know the Seahawks were NAIA national runners-up last year. "Why don't you just come in and watch one of our games? How ‘bout that?" he joked.
The UK boss seems to be carrying a greater tone of urgency coming into the new season. Part of that may be due to carrying the banner as defending national champions and what he feels is an undeserved No. 3 preseason ranking. Another part is the specter of traditional ACC powers Maryland and Duke awaiting the Wildcats for their first two regular season games in less than two weeks.
Kentucky's defense was suspect in last week's Blue-White Scrimamge, an 89-88 affair that saw one team make 57 percent of its shots from the field and the other hit at a 47-percent clip. The Wildcats led the nation in defensive field goal percentage last year at 37.4 percent en route to a 38-2 record and the school's eighth national championship.
The transition to a new season has been challenging due to the loss of six players to the NBA Draft. Kentucky is the only BCS level program in the nation that does not return a single player with at least one start from the 2011-12 season.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress served as a target for Calipari's defensive frustrations on Wednesday. Asked if the Tennessee native could be a mismatch for opponents at the 3 and 4 positions, the UK coach said "The way he's playing defensively, he's a big mismatch for us."
The UK staff has been experimenting with different personnel groups this week in practice. One of them features big men Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein on the court together, harkening back to "Twin Tower" combinations of Wildcat past like Rick Robey and Mike Phillips in the late 70s or Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin in the early 80s.
"I don't know who's going to start yet; still trying to figure some stuff out," Calipari said. "What I'm tinkering with is combinations. What I'm trying to figure out is, when these guys are in the game together, how are we going to play?"
Calipari wasn't all doom and gloom Wednesday, though. He eventually conceded that he likes the Cats' potential.
"I like my team," he said. "I think we'll be good in time. It's kind of scary, but us getting dinged is not the worst thing for these guys to understand let's get down and understand that you've got to listen and create habits. We don't have them right now."
Calipari noted that Thursday's game, a 7 p.m. ET tip to be broadcast live on FoxSports South, will not feature the typical foul disqualification rules. He said his team needs the work, so he can't afford to have players benched due to foul trouble.
Calipari: 'Defensively, we're just awful'
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