From the first time Nerlens Noel worked out at Kentucky, John Calipari knew he had something special on his hands.
"He had something in him; he could take it all to another level,'' Calipari of Noel. "He had that will to win. I've had players like that in Derrick Rose and Brandon Knight. They can grab stuff from within that normal guys can't do. They make plays out of nothing to win a game. They're not afraid.''
He's hoping to see the same from two newcomers, big men Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson, and continued development from Willie Cauley-Stein.
AP Photo/James CrispUnlike like last season, Kentucky has experience returning with players like Willie Cauley-Stein.
Can Cauley-Stein find consistency and perform at a high level, such as when he had four blocks against Florida on the final day of the SEC season or scored 20 against Vanderbilt? Will Calipari play the 7-foot sophomore with the enforcing Randle or Johnson? Where does freshman Marcus Lee fit in? How will Calipari use Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer this time around?
The backcourt will actually be less confusing, with twins Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison and James Young anchoring the positions and getting most of the touches. But the frontcourt, from the 3 to the 5, will offer Calipari more options than he's had since he's been at Kentucky.
"We're going to be much stronger physically at all positions,'' said Calipari, who is still in the running for 6-foot-7 small forward Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 player in the 2013 class. "Our post presence will be there with Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. He's a lot like Nerlens in terms of blocking shots and going after balls. He's bouncy with great energy, but he's not as big. Willie is coming back with one thought in mind: He wants to do something on the basketball court and in the tournament. He's got something to prove to himself. He's got a great frame of mind. He understands he's got to do it and do something different.''
Calipari said he's thinking about going with two taller players at the 3 and 4: Cauley-Stein and the 6-10 Johnson. The coach said he also has the option of putting Randle at the 3 and Cauley-Stein at the 4. Poythress will need to be a leader and a strong man. Wiltjer has to pick his spots and take advantage of the mismatches he can provide.
"There will be a lot of teams ahead of us, but we'll be deeper and the bench will be a great friend of mine,'' said Calipari, who with such a loaded squad will be able to hold playing time over players' heads throughout the season. "I'll be able to play like we played at Memphis. We'll be pressing and getting after people because we have more people. We're going to have competition.''
Noel Update: The former Kentucky big man is rehabbing from a season-ending ACL injury that occurred on Feb. 12 at Florida. Noel is working out with the team of specialists from the office of famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. Calipari said Kentucky wanted Noel to be treated by one of the nation's best, not out of disrespect to the doctors in Lexington, but because he said they didn't want NBA officials questioning whether his surgery went well and whether he was ready to compete for the No. 1 pick in June.
"There is a trust level when the NBA talks to Dr. Andrews,'' Calipari said. "Jon Hood had his surgery here [in Kentucky] and it all went well. But we didn't want the NBA to have any questions. He's going to be fine. He's ahead of schedule. When you have a season-ending injury, you want the NBA teams to feel that he's as good as new.''
Noel, who could become UK's third No. 1 overall pick in the Calipari era, was a game-changer for Kentucky as a freshman. He blocked 12 shots in a critical road win at Ole Miss down the stretch. Four days later, Noel had 19 points and 14 rebounds in a key avenging road win at Texas A&M. If Noel hadn't gotten hurt at Florida, the Wildcats would have almost certainly earned a bid to the NCAA tournament.