LEXINGTON — For weeks Kentucky coach John Calipari has warned that his team, ranked in the top five in preseason polls, could start the season with losses to Maryland tonight and Duke Tuesday in neutral-site games.
Now that former Xavier guard Dez Wells has been cleared to play tonight for Maryland against Kentucky in Brooklyn, N.Y., it would seem the Wildcats’ chances of winning are even more difficult. However, Calipari said Thursday he was glad Wells — who considered a transfer to Kentucky after he was booted out of Xavier for disciplinary reasons but found not guilty of any wrongdoing in a court of law — would be playing.
“I am happy. I hate it when I see kids being held out. Give the benefit of the doubt to the kid if you care about kids,” Calipari said. “If we are all in this for them, then give the benefit of the doubt to the kid, and obviously that is what they have done. It probably went up the ladder beyond this and was probably president to president. Probably went up there.
“Doesn’t matter, it is good for that kid and really good for Maryland. He will make Maryland, legitimately, one of those teams, because they were good enough but needed that one guy and he is that one guy. He is that good. You do not understand what Dez does for their team. They go from a team going to be good to a team saying, ‘Who in the ACC can’t we compete with?’”
Calipari said he thought Wells was “outstanding” when he met with him about coming to Kentucky.
“You worry about that kid and that kid being able to play, and that is good for him. If we are going to make a mistake, make it in leaning towards a kid, not away. Don’t worry about the program he is going to. Zero back on what is right for this kid, and if the benefit of the doubt leans towards this kid, let him play,” Calipari said.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon is certainly glad to have Wells playing.
“He makes us better offensively. He knows when to pass and shoot, can get to the rim. Defensively, he can get after a guy,” Turgeon said. “He takes on a challenge and will help there (on defense). He gives us more depth, more versatility. He has that experience which we don’t have.
“Dez is the kid of player that makes everybody around him better. I think he’ll help Nick Faust the most. It takes a lot of pressure off him. It gives him an experienced player next to him. But it benefits everybody. I think it gives all the players more confidence and gives the coaches more confidence knowing he will be playing.”
Calipari said the Terrapins do a variety of things that could give his young team problems tonight.
“They are trying to come down each time and get good shots and really, really post the ball. They do a great job of running screens, and every ball screen ends up in a down screen. They are trying to get that ball into the post, into the post, into the post,” he said. “So Kyle (Wiltjer) has his hands full. Our big guys have their hands full. Like, if you think you are just going to play, you are going to get screened first or your man is going to screen, and then they are posting your man. So they put you in tough situations and they execute.
“I would imagine the first five or six times down the floor the ball is getting posted. Its bang, bang, bang, post the ball. We are going to find out where we truly are with post defense. That is why I saw we play these games early. I would rather have had a game or two under our belts before we played it. But the reality of it is, this team is so young, let’s learn it right away.
"Here is where we are, here is where we are not. Don’t get crazy, this is where we are. You can see it, here is where we are really awful, let’s shore that up, and I think that is where we are right now.”
Calipari said he’s not sure his team is “ready to beat a basketball team” based on what he has seen in practice and exhibition games, especially with guard Ryan Harrow battling the flu and guard Julius Mays dealing with a knee strain.
“They play great position defense, they don’t give you a whole lot and they don’t turn it over a whole lot,” Calipari said of Maryland. “They try to take good shots every time down. They are not going to beat themselves. They are going to press us some and it’s going to look ugly. We just haven’t had the time to work on it.”
Turgeon knows the inside battle could be key to the game.
“I like my bigs. They are good and getting better, but they struggle at times and Kentucky makes it so hard to score around the rim,” he said.
Turgeon watched Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel play in high school and knows what he can do.
“Nerlens is one of the best I have ever seen. I watched him out of high school, and he just changed games,” Turgeon said. “He is a special breed. Our big concern is how will we score around the rim.”
Turgeon said Kentucky’s front-court players are “all good players, and that’s why they are at Kentucky.” He described power forward Alex Poythress as “a slasher” who can do more.
“He can hit an open shot and is good rebounder. A physical kid that gives them a lot of versatility. So he can do a lot of things for them,” Turgeon said.
Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein has caught Turgeon’s eye also with his play in UK’s two exhibition wins.
“Willie is a kid who just looks like he is going to keep getting better. He’s just so long and active,” Turgeon said. “He seems skilled. They all make scoring look so easy, even at their young age.”
Calipari stressed again Thursday that the first two games had to be about “winning and learning, not winning and losing” because of the Wildcats’ youth.
“I have slashers in Alex and Archie (Goodwin), shooters in Ryan, Julius and Kyle and two good post-up players (Noel and Cauley-Stein),” he said. “It’s just a different team than I have coached before.
“Nerlens is the hardest worker we have. I tell you Willie is good and will get better, but Nerlens is more active. You see his quick bounce, active hands, and he really understands he can push through. He finds something in him most players don’t when he is tired. Is he a finished product? No. But I am not worried. I just want him to take shots.”