November 12, 2015

(AP) - Starting the season ranked second isn't a concern for a Kentucky squad that believes it can reclaim its familiar penthouse view.

How long the Wildcats take getting to the top of college basketball after losing seven players from a 38-1 Final Four team depends on what their talented newcomers learn from a weekend crash course of games to open the season.

Kentucky takes on Albany on Friday night in the first of two games on consecutive days in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Classic. NJIT follows at Rupp Arena on Saturday night.

Coach John Calipari hopes the back-to-back contests gives his latest group of high school All-Americans a chance to bond. After those games comes a showdown with No. 5 Duke. Kentucky squares off against the defending NCAA champs Tuesday night in Chicago.

Right now, Calipari said his team's focus is getting past the Great Danes and their veteran roster in the inaugural meeting between the schools. Albany has been in past three NCAA Tournaments.

''We have a whole new team and these guys are looking at us and saying, `They're no different than us,''' Calipari said Thursday of Albany. He also noted that NJIT beat Michigan on the road last season.

''It's two really hard games and then you flow into Duke, which is another monster game for us.''

Though Kentucky is used to playing in early season marquee matchups, Calipari would have preferred a little more time for his new-look roster to prepare for the Blue Devils. On the other hand, he has ratcheted up the intensity in workouts to prepare the Wildcats for playing three games in five days.

Kentucky's mix of veterans and newcomers certainly seem eager to face the demanding schedule.

''We'll find out individually who we are and how tough this team is,'' said freshman guard Jamal Murray, whose scoring and rebounding have keyed exhibition blowouts of Ottawa (Kansas) and Kentucky State.

''We've got a feel for each other and the chemistry is there.''

The size is certainly there for Kentucky with 6-foot-11 freshman Skal Labissiere, who on Thursday was named to the preseason all-SEC first team. The Wildcats also have 7-foot Australian Isaac Humphries, and both have to fill a major void in the post created by the departures of Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Kentucky's other frontcourt veterans are juniors Marcus Lee and Derek Willis and senior Alex Poythress, who's returning from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament sustained last December.

Kentucky's deepest area is a backcourt led by sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis, another preseason all-SEC first-teamer. The additions of Murray, Isaiah Briscoe, Charles Matthews and transfer Mychal Mulder give Calipari the option of using three guards in some combination, and all can score.

Unlike last year's 10-deep squad that Calipari featured in a platoon system in an effort to give everyone quality minutes, Kentucky will rely on more conventional rotations of maybe eight or nine players. The mixes were impressive in expected exhibition routs of Ottawa (117-58) and NCAA Division II Kentucky State (111-58), but Calipari wants to see where everybody fits in regular-season games - especially on defense, as he mulls using the press more.

''If we're giving up layups and open shots, then we will not press,'' he said. ''We're trying to pick you up, play, and make it hard and difficult. We're not trying to give up layups and easy shots.''

No matter how this early season gauntlet plays out, the Wildcats hope to learn something about themselves that will pay off down the road.

''We have no idea what we're going to be or what we'd like to be,'' Lee said. ''I think we'll have a clearer picture after this group of games but right now we're just trying to do day by day. We're just trying to do small steps.''

As for the Great Danes, they're coming off a 24-9 season which included the America East regular-season and tournament titles. They were picked to finish second in the conference's preseason poll.

Albany is led by senior Peter Hooley, the school's eighth all-time leading scorer with 1,108 points. He averaged 13.7 last season despite missing eight games as his mother battled cancer and eventually passed away.

You May Like