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Somber Cal begins news conference with call to pray for victims in Paris

A subdued John Calipari opened his post-game news conference Friday night by calling for everyone to think of the victims of the terrorism in Paris earlier in the day.

“Let me just start by saying I was watching this stuff in Paris and couldn’t get my mind on the game,” Calipari said after Kentucky beat Albany. “And because you sitting there and thinking what it was, why it was, just don’t understand.

“And then you have people, innocent people, knowing that ‘I’m going to die,’ I mean, now they say there’s 160 people (who died). . . .

“So I think we all tonight say a prayer for all those families and those innocent people. I just don’t get it.”

Murray: Cal’s message about turnovers delivered and understood

Kentucky Coach John Calipari marveled at how his team had more turnovers (20) than Albany (15) when UK pressed much of the game Friday.

Calipari singled out the five turnovers each committed by Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray as particularly in need of correction.

When asked if Calipari would call for a reduction in turnovers, Murray said, “He already has. I have, too.”

What did Calipari say about the turnovers?
“Just to value possessions and take care of the ball,” Murray said. “And know that we have to use every possession to our advantage.”
Cal used the word “casual” in talking about Murray’s turnovers.
“I get what he’s saying: ‘Let’s take care of the ball more and realize how important the possession is,’ ” Murray said. “That’s something I didn’t do today, and I’ll make an adjustment tomorrow.”
Kentucky plays New Jersey Institute of Technology on Saturday night.

Lee stresses how it’s too early to assess Kentucky team

After Kentucky beat Albany 78-65 Friday night, Marcus Lee cautioned reporters from rushing to judgment about the Cats.

“”It’s the first game,”he said when asked if Kentucky was Kentucky against Albany. “We don’t know. We have no idea. We literally just started four hours ago. We have a really long way to go. And we’re just trying to figure it out as we go.”

Lee said that defense has a long way to go.

“There are times where we feel like we’ve totally figured out how to play the press, and how we played everything overall as a defensive team,” he said. “And there’s moments where we have a total mental lapse and we’re still trying to figure things out. And that’s the whole thing about us. We have to be able to get comfortable with the person that has our back, knowing they have our back. And, right now, we have that about half the time. That’s something we need to figure out.”

While UK Coach John Calipari lamented what he considered a lack of competitive spirit, the Albany coach sounded impressed.

Before the game, Will Brown had said that Tyler Ulis was the best point guard in the country, Skal Labissiere a likely first overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft and Jamal Murray the best player in college basketball.

“Nothing that happened tonight changed my mind,” the Albany coach said.

Albany coach: Murray is the best player in college basketball

Albany Coach Will Brown called Tyler Ulis the best point guard in the country and Skal Labissiere as the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

But Brown, whose team plays at Kentucky Friday night, threw an even bigger bouquet UK’s way.

“And I’ll say it now before everybody jumps on the bandwagon,” Brown said earlier this week. “I think they have the best player in the country in Jamal Murray.”

UK Coach John Calipari declined to join Brown in saluting Murray as college basketball’s best player . . . for now.

“I would like to think that by the end of the year, people are looking at him and saying, wow,” Calipari said Thursday. “Like they were with Karl (Anthony Towns) and like they were with Anthony (Davis). At the beginning of the year, they weren’t saying those things (about Towns and Davis). They said, nice player.

“Right now, I don’t want to put that on the kid.”

Murray, a freshman from Canada, shrugged off the best-in-basketball comment.

“I’m just going to go out and do my thing,” he said, “and prove that.”

With Ulis and Labissiere, Murray has competition for best player on Kentucky’s team.

“That just shows how deep our team is,” Murray said, “and how versatile we can be.”

Southeastern Conference coaches voted Murray to the second-team all-league team. Ulis and Labissiere made the first team.

“I don’t really pay attention to rankings,” Murray said. “I never really have. Even in high school. That’s not a concern for me.”

With a smile that suggested it’s not that big a problem, Calipari said he had an issue with Murray’s shot selection.

“He never thinks he takes a bad shot,” the UK coach said. “When he falls down and throws one over his head, it may go in, now.”

Calipari said he asked Murray three days ago to tell him when he thinks he’s taken a bad shot.

With timing a stand-up comic might envy, Calipari waited for someone to ask how often Murray had made such a confession.

When the question was asked, Calipari smiled and said, “He’s not told me that.”

UK sees first 3 games in 5 days as crash course in self-discovery

Junior forward Marcus Lee likened another freshman-dependent Kentucky team beginning a new season to a puzzle.

“It’s like having all these puzzle pieces stuck in this big pile,” he said Thursday, “and you don’t know what piece goes where.”

Lee and UK Coach John Calipari suggested that the pieces may fall together quickly given how the Cats are starting the season with three games in five days.

“We’ll have a much clearer picture after this group of games,” Lee said.

Kentucky, which is ranked No. 2 (media) and No. 1 (coaches), opens the season Friday against Albany, a team led by veterans who’ve played competitively in the last three NCAA tournaments. Then on Saturday, the Cats play New Jersey Institute of Technology, which Calipari repeatedly pointed out won at Michigan last season.

“Two hard games,” Calipari said. “Then you flow into Duke, which is another monster game for us.”

Kentucky plays Duke in Chicago next Tuesday.

Calipari suggested that UK won’t be coy or clever in the opening games. The caliber of the competition demands a serious approach. “How we’re going to play (this season), it will show,” he said.

Among the hints on how Kentucky will play included Calipari giving qualified support for pressing full-court.

“I want to press,” he said, “but I just know me. If we’re giving up layups or open shots, we will not press.”

Calipari said Alex Poythress, Skal Labissiere and Lee form the front court rotation. “Going to play as many minutes as they possibly can play,” Calipari said.

Isaac Humphries will “steal some minutes” in the front court, Calipari said. “Maybe Derek (Willis) will steal some minutes at that position, too, and steal some at (a wing).”

Dominique Hawkins has returned to practice after sitting out several weeks because of a broken bone in his right hand.

The big question on Calipari’s mind entering the season continues to be about the team’s competitive spirit.

“I just worry about our fight,” Calipari said. “Our desire to fight. Will to win. . . . The true grit you have to play with. The passion to fight for balls, and why you’re doing it. It’s just going to be a process with this group.”

Calipari linked Poythress’ return from anterior cruciate ligament surgery to how well UK develops this fight.

“That’s why Alex being healthy and playing the way he’s capable of playing (is important),” the UK coach said. “He can lead our other guys to do that.”

Lee voiced confidence that once UK puts together its puzzle pieces, it will be a pretty picture.

“We just know we have greatness in us,” he said.

Cal: ‘Old’ UK likely to start three freshmen

Kentucky will be relatively old this coming season. But the team will again be the Kiddie Cats, UK Coach John Calipari said Tuesday.

Speaking on a teleconference promotion for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Classic, Calipari noted how Kentucky would have a senior (Alex Poythress), junior (Marcus Lee) and a sophomore (Tyler Ulis) in its rotation.

“We’re, like, old for us,” he said. “That’s, like, an old team.”

Yet Kentucky will be dependent on freshmen, which has made the program synonymous with so-called one-and-done players in Calipari’s six previous seasons as coach.

“Good chance we’ll start three freshmen,” Calipari said, “which is typical for us.”

The three are likely Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe.

“We’re not 10 deep/two platoons,” Calipari said. “We’ll probably play six, seven or eight depending on who deserves it. And we’ll go from there.”

Calipari sounded upbeat as he described Kentucky’s progress this pre-season.

“I like our guards,” he said before adding, “Our big guys are catching up.”

Of Poythress, who is returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Calipari said, “Alex is becoming more and more healthy each time we step on the court.”

Lee is establishing his role. Labissiere is showing more fight.

“We’re going to be fine,” Calipari said. “We’re still trying to figure out who we are. That’s going to be the challenge in all this.”

Cal: Like Towns, Skal must become a low-post scorer

Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere considers Tim Duncan and Anthony Davis as role models for how he wants to play.

But at this early stage of his development as a college player, Labissiere most resembles UK’s star freshman of last season: Karl-Anthony Towns.

Like Towns, Labissiere thinks of himself as a face-the-basket threat on offense.

“I love to face up,” he said. “I think that’s a big part of my game.”

UK Coach John Calipari wants to shrink the number of face-the-basket shots from Labissiere, just as he did with Towns last season. And just like with Towns, Calipari wants Labissiere to become more of a force, offensively and defensively, around the basket.

Of big men shooting face-the-basket shots, which he dismissed as “fade-a-ways,” Calipari said, “You ain’t going to win a whole lot of games.”

Better to establish a low-post presence, Calipari said. That’s how Towns evolved into the hub of UK’s offense last season and became the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

The new rules, which are supposed to more often interpret physical contact as fouls, provide added incentive for big men like Labissiere to be low-post scorers, Calipari said.

“We’ve just got to teach him to fight for position,” the UK coach said.

Labissiere, who is projected as a possible No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NBA Draft, said he already had a favorite low-post move.

“Simple,” he said. “Go to the middle (of the lane) and right-hand hook.”

Study in contrasts at top of 1st AP poll with UNC No. 1, UK No. 2

There’s  a study in contrasts at the top of The Associated Press’ first college basketball poll of the season.

North Carolina, which returns most players from a team that finished last season with a 26-10 record, was voted No. 1 in the media poll.

Kentucky, which lost 85,9 percent of its scoring and 77.,3 percent of its rebounding, was voted No. 2.

Kentucky received 10 of the 65 first-place votes in the AP poll. North Carolina received 35 first-place votes.

Maryland, Kansas and Duke rounded out the top five. The rest of the top 10 were Virginia, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Gonzaga and Wichita State.

Kentucky was ranked in the top three for the fifth straight year,  and sixth time in John Calipari’s seven seasons as coach. The exception was a No. 11 ranking going into the 2010-11 season.

The high ranking repeated another familiar pattern. UK typically loses several underclassmen to the NBA Draft, and replaces them with another set of highly-regarded freshmen.

By contrast, North Carolina returns four starters and nine of its 10 top scorers from last season. The Tar Heels are ranked No. 1 in the first AP poll for a record ninth time.  UCLA has been ranked No. 1 in the first poll eight times.

North Carolina was last a pre-season No. 1 in 2011-12.

Teammates see early improvement in Poythress, Skal

Although Kentucky’s first game is still two weeks away, teammates touted the improvement already made by arguably the two most important players to team success this season: Alex Poythress and Skal Labissiere.

Of course, Poythress is coming back from tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in mid-December. UK Coach John Calipari has said that Poythress can make a critical difference because his combination of size and athleticism makes him the team’s only “beast.”

Teammate Marcus Lee said he can see Poythress rounding into that kind of player.

“Alex is definitely a confident player right now,” Lee said Friday. “He’s getting used to his injury no longer being there. It’s mostly mental with him. Him just saying, ‘OK, I’m ready to do it.’ That’s what he has to do.”

A standout play still contains an element of surprise for Poythress, Lee said.

“You can definitely see sometimes when he’ll forget that he’s ever been injured,” Lee said. “And he’ll jump out of the gym like he usually does. After he does, he’ll kind of have a surprised face of forgetting how powerful he really is.”

Labissiere is widely seen as a possible overall No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. After the Blue-White Game on Tuesday, Calipari again called for the freshman big man to assert himself more and become an intimidating presence.

Mychal Mulder said Labissiere is making this transition.

“I definitely say I’ve seen Skal take a lot of steps forward as a basketball player and as a person,” Mulder said. “. . . He’s handled everything that’s been put on him really well.”

Lee echoed that thought.

“Skal is definitely a really confident player, so confidence is not something he really needs to work on,” Lee said. “It’s kind of just him knowing he’s able to do it, and just doing it, and not over-thinking the process.”