BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- So I was sitting with Auburn's Tony Barbee the other day here at the Westin in the downtown area of this southern city where the SEC is headquartered, and we were talking about the challenges of building a program in a power league, about the issue of transfers at the Division I level, about this and that and a little bit of everything.
Mostly, we were just catching up.
But eventually I turned the conversation to Kentucky.
Because it seems like every college basketball conversation these days -- especially down in this part of the country -- eventually turns toward Kentucky, and, beyond that, Barbee probably knows UK's coach as well as anybody. He played for John Calipari at UMass, assisted him at Memphis, and the two remain close. So I asked Barbee if he had spoken to Calipari recently, specifically about the young-and-talented Wildcats, because I was curious whether Calipari genuinely liked what he was seeing in practices.
"Come on, Gary," Barbee said with a smile. "You've known Cal almost as long as I've known Cal. Has he ever liked any team?"
Fair point, Coach Barbee.
Naturally, I took those words to Calipari.
"I never liked any team Tony played on," Calipari said with a laugh, and from there we got into specifics about his current roster that's so good that most intelligent people are ranking UK No. 1 despite the fact that six of the top eight players are freshmen. What I found most interesting is this: "The guy who has surprised everybody is James Young," Calipari said. "We've practiced 11 times, and we've probably had, I'm guessing, 40 scouts come through. Maybe more. And they all love him. Like he's my best player."
Now is James Young really Kentucky's best player?
I have no idea.
Knowing Calipari, that statement could be 100 percent true. Or it could be exaggerated in the spirit of motivating Young's teammates. Or it could be designed to encourage Young, who is, yes, a projected future first-round draft pick ... but merely the eighth-best NBA prospect currently enrolled at Kentucky, according to DraftExpress.com.
(I'll let you pick.)
Either way, what's remarkable is this: There's nothing that ridiculous about Calipari referring to Young as his best player, and it's more than reasonable for others to conclude that Young might not be one of Kentucky's top seven NBA prospects. Now read that sentence again. And now you should understand why the Wildcats are atop the USA Today coaches poll that was released Thursday afternoon.
"You know how McDonald's has signs that say, 'One billion sold?'" asked South Carolina coach Frank Martin. "They're going to have to get something like that for Kentucky to show how many McDonald's All-Americans they have, and I think it's great for the league."
The last part of that quote -- that Kentucky consistently enrolling top-shelf talent is good for the SEC in general -- is one almost every SEC coach I sat down with this week echoed here at SEC Media Days, and I sat down with all 14 of them. Obviously, nobody likes to be outmanned, and these Wildcats are going to outman just about everybody (though that doesn't mean Florida and Tennessee aren't equipped to push Kentucky in the SEC, because Florida and Tennessee are equipped to push Kentucky in the SEC). But "a rising tide lifts all boats" is an aphorism more than one coach used this week, and that's the hope throughout this league that's projected to be won by the Wildcats for the third time in five years.
Meantime, Calipari has work to do.
New players are still new players, after all, and a neutral-site game against a more-experienced/almost-as-talented Michigan State team that's ranked second in the preseason coaches poll is less than a month away. With that in mind, Calipari has conducted more five-on-five scrimmages than usual and instructed his freshmen to ...
"Fail fast," Calipari said. "Let's see what they know and don't know, and the only way I can learn that is if they fail fast. 'Go for it. Show us what you can do. Let's see stuff. Don't be afraid. Fail fast.' And then we'll correct it ... quickly."