As time inched along this summer, John Calipari used his annual offseason media tour to rave about Kentucky’s upcoming roster for the 2020-21, stressing over and over that a season must be played.
“We’ve got to play because I have a really good team,” Calipari told Andy Katz of NCAA.com. “We’ve got a great group of players who are great kids, they’re wired and driven. They’re here to sacrifice and share. None of them came here saying they’re going to be ‘the man,’ like, “You’re going to give me all the shots.” … This group, aside from being givers, sharers, servant leaders at a young age, they’re really talented. Like really talented.”
He went as far as to say this Kentucky team had the opportunity to become one of the best that has ever come through Lexington.
“You really have to be into your team and sharing and your whole thing in your mindset is, how good can I be? How good a teammate can I be? This group is all bought into that, both feet,” Calipari said in a radio interview on KSR. “Their parents trust us with their child, and we’re really good. We got some really good players. So I’m sitting here saying, [having a special group] has happened three or four times, but let me tell you what those teams have done. The teams you’re talking about became unbelievable teams. Teams.”
Mind you, this praise came when players had just arrived on campus and workouts were just beginning.
Fast forward to October with official preseason practices underway, and the offseason hype has transitioned to true championship “buzz” around the basketball facilities in Lexington.
“I think we’ve had special teams, really good teams in my six years here,” UK assistant coach Joel Justus said. “When you have special teams, there’s a little bit of a different buzz in the gym. We have that right now.”
The buzz comes from a mix of fun and competitiveness after an offseason of uncertainty. With the season moving forward as planned and the schedule taking shape, the championship dreams are alive and well.
“You have a group of guys that’s excited to play basketball, a group of guys that had basketball taken away from them,” Justus said. “You have a group that comes into the gym that wants to play, and they want to play hard. … Our guys are excited, they’re having fun, but they’re also competing. That’s something that, as a coach, it’s hard to coach that.”
The buzz isn’t just coach speak, either. When asked about the feel at practice and around the facilities, the Kentucky players all confirmed the team has embraced a championship mindset, creating an unmistakeable buzz.
“Being a guy that has been around multiple NBA players that I played college with, a lot of guys play high level overseas, this is a team that—that took me a few years to see being in college, but I’m seeing that talent immediately here as freshmen,” graduate transfer guard Davion Mintz said. “Guys that are playing similar to guys that went to the NBA after me, playing a few years with them. So, it’s definitely a special group. Guys are definitely backing up what their résumés said. It’s just very exciting.”
“I think this team does have that (opportunity to be special),” redshirt freshman guard Dontaie Allen added. “Honestly, you can see glimpses in practice of offense and defense, but the big thing is going to be our defense. Our defense is really, really, really good. That’s not even taking away from our offense, but our defense is just there. I just feel like we’re going to keep growing and keep getting better as the season progresses.”
“Personally, I feel like our team is really well-rounded. There’s no drop-off,” freshman guard Terrence Clarke said. “I feel like everybody on the team has something they can bring to the table, they know they have to sacrifice and do different things on the court. The buzz is that we’re all in for each other right now. I think we’re all invested in winning games. Every day we come into practice and work as hard as we can. Going into the season, we’re just really focused.”
Kentucky will look to turn that buzz into wins (and eventually a title, hopefully) when the season officially begins on Nov. 25.