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September 30, 2013

As Cats chase title, last season a distant memory

There might be a preseason No. 1 ranking.

There could be five -- or six or seven or eight -- eventual first-round NBA Draft picks on the roster.

The weight of great expectations may be heavier on Kentucky than on any other college basketball team in America in 2013-14. And yet, you can't convince Alex Poythress that the Wildcats should be feeling the heat.

"I don't feel no pressure," Poythress said. "It's basketball. The worst that can happen to us happened already. We can only go up."

You remember the worst that could happen.

Kentucky in 2012-13, then as now blessed with the nation's top incoming recruiting class, struggled to find its footing. Ryan Harrow floundered down the stretch at point guard. Nerlens Noel proved one of college basketball's top defenders, then saw his season end early with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

The Wildcats, not yet a year removed from the program's eighth NCAA title, ended the season with a loss at Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

And now, Kentucky comes not to reflect on that season, but to bury it.

"I don't really think about it," sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein said. "You move on. You live and you learn from it. You know you don't want to feel that way again, so you do everything in your power for you never to feel like that."

Turns out, it's easy to leave behind.

In fact, coach John Calipari could avoid the subject altogether if anyone would let him.

But if you insist, he'll tell you that last season largely was his fault; that he thought Marquis Teague would return for his sophomore season and that pursuing a top flight point guard might have scared off this season's coveted freshman duo of twins Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison.

Calipari will say that last season was a mistake, that he tried too hard to protect players from competition.

"I'm telling you how we've tried to cure that," Calipari said. "One is -- ready? -- better players. More of 'em."

Kentucky under Calipari has turned over its roster dramatically the past four seasons, and this one is no exception. Harrow transferred to Georgia State. Noel and Archie Goodwin jumped to the NBA. Julius Mays graduated.

And Calipari restocked the cupboard with some zesty ingredients, his fifth-straight Rivals No. 1 recruiting class.

There are veterans, too, players who remember the way last season went off the tracks. By and large, though, Kentucky's a new-look locomotive, charging ever forward.

"What happened last year is what happened last year," said freshman forward Julius Randle, the No. 2 player in the high school Class of 2013. "That's in the past. We don't even worry about that. We know what we have as a team. We know what we can accomplish. We're just focused on this year's team and our goal to win a national championship."

The pieces are in place.

Joining Randle and the Harrison twins in the freshman class are fellow McDonald's All-Americans James Young, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee as well as Kentuckians Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis.

And the Cats return Cauley-Stein and Poythress, both hoping to improve upon solid freshman seasons.

It figures to be among Calipari's deepest and most-talented teams.

That's saying something.

"The issue for us is going to be how quickly can we come together," Calipari said. "Can we get in the kind of shape you have to be in to compete at the level we're going to try to compete? They get along. They got along before they got here kind of like other teams I've had where before we walk on campus they know each other and like each other."

And though Calipari wants his players looking forward, there's a chance to bond over looking back.

"(Last year is a) motivator, especially for the returning guys," senior Jon Hood said. "These new guys, they don't want to be a part of that. They will not be a part of that."

But they likely won't avoid the subject entirely.

Even as a new season dawns, Aaron Harrison said he hears "outsiders" talking about last year. And Cauely-Stein said the stigma of a disappointing season is almost impossible to escape.

"The funny thing is people still bring it up to you," Cauley-Stein said. "Like, I'll still have people on Twitter that -- something not even relevant to what I'm talking about -- will be like, 'Well you can't even win a game in the NIT against Robert Morris.' What does that have to do with liking pickles? You know what I'm saying? Like, what? So it speaks to you. Like, it's really that big of a deal to other people. But to us, you move on. It's a different year. You got a chance to start all over."

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