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Calipari confident heralded recruits will mesh

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - The pending arrival of eight heralded newcomers has allowed Kentucky coach John Calipari to quickly move on after losing out on top recruit Andrew Wiggins.

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Calipari is confident his large recruiting class will mesh and have the Wildcats back in national championship contention.

Calipari acknowledges the challenge of melding the skills of another talented group of freshmen, one featuring six McDonald's All-Americans. Kentucky's latest recruiting class is considered the best in school history, ratcheting expectations of a ninth national championship next season.

Wiggins was considered the final piece for a Wildcats' title run, but the nation's top-rated player committed to Kansas Tuesday.

Still, Calipari's believes his class will be successful because junior Kyle Wiltjer and sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress return to provide experience and leadership for the rookies.

His only caveat: expecting too much from his 13-man roster, especially after Kentucky (21-12) missed last season's NCAA tournament with a highly touted foursome.

``It's been laid out for them,'' Calipari said Wednesday of the expectations. ``Now, the question is, will we all have the patience? Will I have the patience?

``There's no choice. It may be ugly early and we're playing good teams early. The point is by the end of the year, we have the talent, the size, the toughness, the skill set. ... How we bring this team together will be the challenge of this.''

Calipari eagerly embraces the mission because of the depth of talent he has attracted.

Leading Kentucky's latest group of All-Americans are 6-foot-5 twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison; forwards Marcus Lee and Julius Randle; guard James Young; and center Dakari Johnson. Joining them are in-state players Derek Willis, a 6-foot-9 post player, and guard Dominique Hawkins, the consensus choice as Kentucky's top prep player.

Besides being among the nation's best at their positions, the versatility of each one could help address several problem areas for the Wildcats. What has Calipari most encouraged is the dominant ``Alpha male'' characteristics displayed by players, such as the 6-10 Randle - traits that were missing from last year's Kentucky squad that also lacked a returning starter from the previous year's championship team.

``This team will have maybe two'' such players, Calipari said, ``but that's OK. What happens is when you have multiple (Alpha males), which we had on my team two years ago, different guys can lead at different points in the year. When you don't have that Alpha male at all, you have to do things to try to lead yourself as a coach, and your team can never have the kind of success you want.''

Last season was definitely a cautionary tale about expecting too much from freshmen.

Big men Nerlens Noel and Cauley-Stein, guard Archie Goodwin and Poythress showed potential and even made the Southeastern Conference's All-Freshmen team. But as a group they didn't come close to meeting the standard set by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in leading Kentucky to the title two years ago.

Besides being left out of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats lost at Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT as the top seed. That defeat capped a 4-5 run without the 6-10 defensive specialist Noel, whose season-ending knee injury in February hurt Kentucky's tenuous tournament prospects.

Noel has entered the NBA draft and could be the No. 1 overall pick next month. Goodwin is also in the draft pool.

Fortunately for Kentucky, 7-footer Cauley-Stein and Poythress skipped the draft to return for more development. They are joined by Wiltjer, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson.

``The guys that came back, should've come back,'' Calipari said.

Signing so many scholarship players also points to a lesson the coach said he learned from not having enough last season. The group's arrival has energized Kentucky's already-fervent fan base to the point of predicting an unbeaten season on social media. Calipari warned that any success will require hard work from players and especially the coaches.

Calipari said the work starts Monday for him and his staff, who will try to identify each player's skills and coaching needs by the time they arrive on June 1 for orientation. Summer visits from former Wildcats, particularly those playing in the NBA, should also help provide direction for the roster.

The result is an encouraging outlook that Calipari said would've been there no matter what Wiggins decided.

``I wish him well,'' the coach said of Wiggins. ``He's a great kid and he's going to be a terrific basketball player. It didn't change me any. I was confident in this team and the group we had before and after his decision.''

Copyright 2017 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
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