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.