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November 1, 2012Kentucky gets its first look at another team Thursday, while its opponent's coach gets a last look at Rupp Arena.
Northwood coach Rollie Massimino won the 1985 national championship with Villanova at Rupp. He hadn't been back until Wednesday, when his team practiced in the arena in preparation for Thursday's game.
"I'm very grateful for this," Massimino said, sitting a few chairs away from the space he occupied during that title game. "There are obviously plenty of memories. It's going to be a wonderful experience for the kids to see all these people here, as it was in 1985."
Twenty-seven years after that title, Massimino wanted a return trip. He called John Calipari and pitched the idea of an exhibition game in Rupp Arena.
"He said yes right away," Massimino said.
That was, Calipari said, before he realized Northwood's credentials.
The Seahawks have gone 171-37 in six years under Massimino. Last season, they were ranked the preseason No. 1 NAIA team and finished as the national runner-up. This year, they're back as the No. 1 preseason team.
They have a history of playing top-notch talent in exhibitions. Tuesday, they played Michigan State (and trailed by six at halftime, as Calipari was quick to point out). In years past, they've played Maryland, Pittsburgh, Villanova and Florida.
"I didn't know (Massimino's) team would be this good," Calipari said. "I said, 'Why don't you just come in and watch one of our games?'"
Instead, Kentucky gets to play them. Calipari said any weaknesses and issues he has to address with his team will be easily visible by the end of Thursday's game.
"All of those things will come to light," Calipari said.
Mistakes or not, the Wildcats sounded ready for a change in opponent.
"We're not necessarily tired (of scrimmaging each other), because we're getting better every day," guard Julius Mays said. "But it's going to be nice playing somebody else for a change."
That somebody else will include two NAIA All-Americans: Forward Masse Duombo, who recorded 20 points and 14 rebounds against Michigan State, and guard Tyrone Davis, who is 5-foot-2 and134 pounds but won't be afraid to go near Kentucky's two big men.
"He doesn't care," Massimino said. "He's a four-year starter. He loves it."
The Wildcats have won their last 18 exhibition games. Under Calipari, UK has beaten teams by 44 (Transylvania, 2011), 31 (Pikeville, 2010) and 36 points (Campbellsville, 2009) in exhibition openers.
But it's less about the result and more about learning from competition.
"It's tough playing against each other every day," Mays said. "We know the plays, so guys are cheating and it's hard to execute. It will be fun to play against somebody else for the first time."
Don't expect zone
"Defensively we're just awful right now," Calipari said. "We don't stay in front of anybody, we got guys stopping left and right and think it's OK or 'It wasn't my man,' and stuff like that."
And as the Wildcats look to improve, don't expect a zone defense to be the answer.
During UK's media day less than a month ago, Calipari said he might play more zone this season. Having 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein, 6-foot-10 Nerlens Noel and 6-foot-10 Kyle Wiltjer in the frontcourt could make UK's one of the longest 2-3 zones in the country.
Just don't count on seeing it often, if at all.
"We've stepped into zone for probably two minutes the other day and we came right out of it and ended practice," Mays said. "I don't know if we'll do much of a zone. I wouldn't even say we practiced it. We were in it for a possession and that was it."
Should UK fans expect to see a zone in Thursday's exhibition game?
"Not at all," said Mays.
UK knows its length will bother other teams, but Mays says that length will be used in a man-to-man defense.
The Cats have focused solely on getting better on the defensive end of the floor since last weeks Blue vs. White scrimmage.
"That's all we've been working on," Mays said. "Our team defense and how to help the helper, how to get over screens and chasing screens. That's the main thing we've been working on."
Last season UK rarely played zone but Wiltjer said Calipari will use it if he thinks it will help the team.
"It's something we have," Wiltjer said. "We don't go to (zone) a lot but it's there."
New team, new task
"It's just, I'm tired," Calipari said. "I'm beat down, because every moment, you're trying to think of ways - how do you get guys better, what are you doing? I'm having more individual meetings than I've had collectively since I've been the coach here already. And what are we in, 21 days of practice? But that's what this team needs, and that's fine."
Because Calipari typically turns over a large part of his roster every season, his coaching challenge varies from year to year. This team, it appears, requires him to be more hands-on than some of his previous ones.
"I'm here for them," Calipari said. "Sometimes I have to do a little bit more. Sometimes I can do a little bit less, depending on the team. But I like my team. I think we will be good in time."