Kentucky Wildcats race into new college basketball season with 3 games in 5 days

Ready or not, the Kentucky Wildcats are racing into the college basketball season.

The No. 2 Wildcats open the season with three games in five days beginning Friday against Albany, continuing Saturday against New Jersey Institute of Technology, and concluding Tuesday against Duke at the Champions Classic in Chicago.

"We'll have a lot of things answered," UK coach John Calipari said Thursday. "(Albany) has most of their team back and was an NCAA Tournament team (last year). NJIT has their whole team back and their players that beat Michigan on the road. Duke is Duke."

So did Calipari back off the intense practice schedule a bit to make sure the Cats would be fresh? Hardly. 

“This week has definitely been one of the hardest weeks that we have had," UK junior center Marcus Lee said. "I think that is really going to help us this week with these double games. It definitely will prepare us.”

Whatever weaknesses Kentucky may have early in the season, Calipari expects all of them to be exposed rather quickly. Albany enters Friday's game at Rupp Arena coming off a 24-9 season which saw the Great Danes win the America East Conference. Albany won 19 of its final 21 games, closing the season with a hard-fought 69-60 loss to third-seeded Oklahoma in its opening game of the NCAA Tournament.

"You're talking about players who believe they're an NCAA Tournament-level team, and it's a hard first game for us," Calipari said. "They're walking in the building saying, 'We can beat these guys.' And the beginning of the game will be important. Not that you have to be up 13-0. (The Cats) just have to know, 'Oh, they won't be as easy as we thought,' because right now we have a whole new team. They are looking at us and saying, 'They're no different than us' because they've got veterans that were in the NCAA Tournament."

Kentucky may not be at full strength from a health standpoint, either. Senior forward Alex Poythress continues to progress from knee surgery that caused him to miss most of last season. He's looked good in two exhibition games, but is still a work in progress, both from a mental and physical standpoint. Junior guard Dominique Hawkins just returned from a broken bone in his hand that caused him to miss four weeks of practice. Sophomore Tyler Ulis, UK's starting point guard and uncontested leader, was wearing a protective boot on a foot Thursday afternoon, and freshman Isaiah Briscoe, who had started both exhibition games as part of Calipari's three-guard lineup, is dealing with a bruised knee.

Among those, Calipari indicated that Briscoe is the only player in danger of missing one of the first two games.

Full strength or not, it's a good challenge for a young UK team that's still loaded with talent, but may be susceptible to the pitfalls of inexperience.

"(NJIT) is going to play Princeton offense, and I have all freshmen," Calipari noted.

Last year, the Highlanders carved up No. 17 Michigan with its motion offense that led to 59-percent shooting from the field and 11 3-pointers. 

"Don't have the camera up above their offense doing lessons on us," Calipari added. "I'm telling you, it's two hard games, and then you flow into Duke, which is another monster game for us."

The UK boss won't spend too much time focused on Duke before taking care of business against the first two opponents, but it's a game many college basketball fans can't wait to see. The Cats and Blue Devils appeared to be on a collision course last season before Wisconsin spoiled the dream matchup in the national championship game by upsetting previously-undefeated UK in the semifinals. 

Kentucky saw six players drafted by the NBA since that game. Duke placed Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justice Winslow in the pro ranks, so the rosters have changed dramatically, but the talent level remains elite after both programs signed top national recruiting classes. The Cats finished No. 1, narrowly slipping by the Blue Devils with the late addition of five-star Canadian guard Jamal Murray.

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