Calipari ready to begin UK career

Published 3:16 am Friday, October 16, 2009

LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari says he has felt like a political candidate during his first six months as Kentucky’s basketball coach, generating new hype with each campaign stop across the state even while trying to temper some lofty expectations.

‘‘I’ve done enough,’’ Calipari said Thursday at the first official media day since leaving Memphis. ‘‘I’m waiting for election day. I was kissing babies, and I didn’t care if I won or lost the election. I just wanted it to happen.’’

Calipari is well aware that the passionate UK fans care strongly about whether he wins or loses. They want wins — preferably in bunches.

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The program’s recent buzz has been sparked not just by its energetic new leader but by his debut recruiting haul, a freshman class arguably the most touted since Michigan’s Fab Five.

Yet unlike that 1991-92 Wolverines team that reached the national title game with five freshman starters, Kentucky has plenty of experience to go along with the new blood. Patrick Patterson was an all-Southeastern Conference center last year during Kentucky’s National Invitation Tournament seaso. Kentucky’s roster is so deep, Calipari envisions Patterson playing some wing this year.

‘‘I can see myself shooting a lot more jump shots, driving to the basket a lot more, possibly taking a 3 every now and then,’’ Patterson said.

Alone with the team goals, Patterson lists some lofty personal ones — even contention for national player of the year — but he may have competition for that honor in his own locker room. John Wall, largely considered the nation’s top point guard recruit, has dazzled in preseason practices, according to his teammates.

Wall, who will both compete and play alongside another blue chip point guard in Eric Bledsoe, says he is keeping expectations in check — both for himself and his team.

‘‘You want to just keep getting better,’’ he said. ‘‘It’ on paper that we’re good, but we haven’t showed it on the court yet.’’

Kentucky fans — at least the ones energized enough to camp out for a ticket — will get their first glimpse of the new-look Wildcats during the annual Big Blue Madness Friday night in Rupp Arena.

Calipari said he initially was just planning the standard scrimmage, but the sight of seeing the tents set up for Wildcats fans wanting tickets for the exhibition convinced him he needed to do more. He is putting the finishing touches on an inspirational speech and is lining up some surprise guests.

‘‘It showed that the program is so important to people that you have to respect your position and understand it’s a privilege,’’ he said.

The off-the-court side of the job was one of criticisms levied at his predecessor, Billy Gillispie, who was fired after two seasons. Gillispie settled with UK this week for a severance package for just under $3 million, and Calipari said he was relieved for the university that the differences had been worked out.

‘‘I’m happy for the university that that thing is done,’’ Calipari said. ‘‘I’m happy for Billy.’’

Calipari’s style has been popular in practices so far. His dribble-drive offense features a lot of individual matchups, encouraging players to prove they either can — or can’t — beat their opponent head-to-head.

Forward Ramon Harris said it’s a looser locker room, largely because it gives everybody new life to reaffirm their talents to the coaching staff.

‘‘Since the coaching change, there’s been a lot more smiles and laughter — not because of the coaching change but knowing we have another opportunity to play,’’ Harris said.

Calipari says he has been awe-struck by the interest generated by the Kentucky program since his arrival. During one dinner in Pikeville, he says one-quarter of the city’s population showed up.

‘‘The response to this university and this basketball program, I’ve never seen anything like it,’’ he said. ‘‘It is awesome. It’s what you live for in coaching. Every place I’ve been it has taken me five years to build this kind of passion. And, you know what? I walked into it here in Kentucky.’’