By GARY GRAVES
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky’s latest group of talented freshmen hear the constant comparisons to last year’s NCAA championship team and are aware of the expectations they face.
And they’re getting advice on how to handle the pressure from those with firsthand experience, including Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. As freshmen they led Kentucky’s title run that raised the bar for the newest Wildcats.
They have urged Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress to develop their own identity and avoid measuring themselves against a team that had six players selected in the NBA draft.
The message has been received.
“We know who we are as individuals and that’s what we focus on,” Noel said during Thursday’s media day. “We know what we’re going to do this year, and we know what they did last year. We’re just looking forward to doing the best we can to get another championship.”
The freshmen insist the school’s recent trend of ‘one-and-done’ players isn’t a given for any of them.
Their attitudes won’t stop the comparisons or the championship expectations of Big Blue Nation that tips off in earnest today, when Kentucky begins practice with Big Blue Madness before a capacity crowd at Rupp Arena.
“What (Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist) told us was to bond as a team because that’s the main thing,” Goodwin said. “They said if we do that, nobody can break it and we have to have each other’s back no matter what happens.
“But they also said not to live up to the expectations of last year’s team. We’re two different teams. They were a great team and we’re trying to do things just like they did, but at the same time we’re our own team and we don’t even know how good we are yet.”
But as usual, what the Wildcats lack in experience, they make up in talent.
Noel has drawn the most attention on and off the court.
Considered the nation’s top recruit, the 6-10, 228-pounder has been compared to Davis because of his size and outstanding shot-blocking skills. His 6-inch high-top fade hairdo — which featured a shaved-in UK logo the day he signed his letter of intent — brings back memories of the late-1980s rap duo Kid ‘N Play.
But there are still questions whether Noel will even play for the Wildcats.
Though academically eligible after finishing summer classes to meet reclassification requirements, the NCAA has only cleared him to practice as it probes the funding of his unofficial visits to Lexington.
Kentucky danced around questions about Noel’s status.
Coach John Calipari deferred to athletics department spokesman DeWayne Peevy, who cited school policy of not confirming eligibility until the first day of competition.
Until told otherwise, Calipari seems to proceeding as though Noel will play.
The coach is mulling how to use Noel and Cauley-Stein, a 7-footer from Olathe, Kan. Kentucky also has 6-7 Poythress, who can play both forward spots, and Goodwin, a good shooting guard.
The Wildcats also should get contributions this season from two transfers.
Guards Julius Mays — a graduate student who had one year of eligibility remaining after playing two years at North Carolina State and last season with Wright State — and sophomore Ryan Harrow, also a North Carolina State transfer, who sat out last season.
“I may stack them together, put them on the same side of the court,” Calipari said of Noel and Cauley-Stein. “I’m going to mess around. I don’t know how much per game we’ll play those two, I really have no idea.
“We have some ideas, random pick-and-rolls we may try. But the basics of the first week of practice, we’re going to be a great defensive team. We’re going to fly up and down the court, we’ll teach the dribble-drive and attacking the basket and really zero in on rebounding because I think that’s one of the things this team should be good at and needs to be good at.”
Despite having one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, Calipari cautions against expecting a fast start from this squad.
Kentucky opens the season against Maryland in Brooklyn, N.Y., followed by Duke at Atlanta, and the coach insists the Wildcats could lose both games and still be a “really good team.”
If the Wildcats do struggle this year, the freshmen appear willing to stick around campus more than one year to develop into a championship squad.
“You have to come in here looking at this as a four-year deal because education’s really important,” Poythress said. “My mom’s really big on that and I’m a great student, so I can probably stay here and try to get my degree.”
Noel, Goodwin and Cauley-Stein expressed similar intentions to stay longer, leaving open the possibility of an early departure if the right opportunity develops.
They seem to have an appreciation of Kentucky’s basketball tradition — not surprising with a banner signifying the most recent title hanging in one corner. And like last year’s squad they have found chemistry off the court and are eager to see how it transfers on it. They also are ready to meet their own expectations.
Which at Kentucky, better start with winning national championship rings.