Two Keys Tavern has been a fixture at the corner of Pine and South Limestone since 1954, a Lexington landmark that has served as a portal to history. Over the years the building has been reinvented. In the '50s and '60s, when Adolph Rupp was leading Kentucky to a pair of national championships, Two Keys was little more than a dark, one-room watering hole. Today it's a bona fide McSports bar, complete with the requisite flat screens, outdoor patio and ear-pulsing sound system. Its connection to its past is on the walls, in framed photos of UK's success stories: Rupp instructing a crew-cut guard named Pat Riley in the mid-'60s; Cameron Mills releasing the Shot Heard Across the Bluegrass against Duke in '98; Anthony Davis celebrating last season's national title.
Every year former UK stars visit Two Keys. Wallace (Wah Wah) Jones. Tony Delk. DeMarcus Cousins. They admire the photos on the wall, belly up to the bar and relive the Wildcats' greatest moments. It's tradition, a de facto private club for Kentucky's elite players. Thanks to coach John Calipari, the membership is expanding rapidly. There are no pictures of this year's team, but, says a bartender, "it's only because the bookstore probably isn't selling any yet."
Last week the man tasked with adding photos to that wall stalked the Cats' practice floor, searching for a target. Third-ranked Kentucky was 1--1 and coming off a close loss to No. 9 Duke, but the exasperation in Calipari's voice indicated that this team still has a lot to learn. All five starters from last season's title-winning team left early for the NBA. The new Cats feature four blue-chip freshmen—centers Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel, small forward Alex Poythress and guard Archie Goodwin—who have already shown they have the talent to get Kentucky back to the Final Four, but on this day they don't seem to be doing much right.
Every 30 seconds or so the shriek of a whistle halts practice. Poythress jogs into an offensive set. "You run like that again, Alex, we're all running," barks Calipari. An ill-timed alley-oop pass from Goodwin to Noel bounces off the backboard. "That wasn't there, Archie," Calipari snaps. After the freshman-led first team gives up an offensive rebound to the second unit, Calipari points at a video camera on the viewing deck. "Defensive rebound," shouts Calipari. "If you don't, we are going to know."
The coach explains, "If I let them play through mistakes, they will think it's O.K. When a guy is doing something wrong, you correct them, bang, right there. You have to rework their brain circuits."
The players don't complain. This is what they signed up for. There are three reasons a recruit goes to Kentucky:
• To win. Entering this season, Kentucky had the most victories (2,090) and the best winning percentage (.763) of any Division I program. In three seasons under Calipari the Wildcats have won 102 games, advanced to two Final Fours and won an NCAA title.
• To play with great players. Kentucky has had the top recruiting class the last four years. "I knew I was going to be going up against guys who would make me better," says Noel. "That was very appealing."
• To get to the NBA. Calipari says he doesn't mention the league on recruiting trips, but "it's the elephant in the room." The last three drafts have included 15 Wildcats, including six in 2012, the most players taken from one school since the NBA went to a two-round format. Since '10, nine of the 21 players who have been drafted after their freshman seasons played for Calipari in Lexington. (Texas has the next most, with three.) "I played against Anthony Davis one summer in high school, and he was nothing compared to what he was when he left here," says Cauley-Stein. "I saw that and said, If they can turn him into a Number 1 draft pick, maybe they can do it for me."
But there is a danger in committing to Kentucky: You might get only one year to do something Wall worthy. Stay longer at your peril, because someone is coming in to replace you. "They all know I'm going to play the best people," says Calipari. "They were not promised anything. They know how I recruited them."
So get to know Kentucky's latest talent—before the next class arrives.
NERLENS NOEL, 6'10", 228-pound center from the Tilton School in Tilton, N.H.
Davis's unibrow was iconic at Kentucky, and Noel has already made his own style contribution: a Kid 'n Play high-top that makes him a 7-footer. His hair is a sensation on campus, spawning its own Facebook page and Twitter account. But Noel mimics Davis in more important ways: The defensive-minded forward slides easily into Davis's position in the paint. "His shot blocking and his timing are great, and he plays with so much energy," says an NBA Eastern Conference executive. "The only thing that will hold him back is his body. Davis was skinny [220 pounds], but he had those wide shoulders. Nerlens doesn't have the wide shoulders. If he can just get his body to where Marcus Camby was when he came out, he has a chance to be really good."
Offensively Noel's game is limited to dunks and putbacks, "but he passes the ball really well from the high post," says an Eastern Conference personnel scout. "The way the NBA has evolved recently with bigs like Roy Hibbert playing out of the high post, it's valuable that a guy can make those passes."
ALEX POYTHRESS, 6'7", 239-pound forward from Northeast High in Clarksville, Tenn.
Last May, Poythress nearly slipped off his stool at his local Buffalo Wild Wings as he watched Kentucky's national championship win. "I just couldn't wait to get there," he says. The smooth forward "reminds me of Boris Diaw," says a Western Conference executive. "He has a tremendous tool set." Calipari says Poythress's skills are similar to those of Rockets forward Patrick Patterson, a former Wildcat. "I'm coaching Alex almost the same as Patrick," says Calipari. "The reality is, I want to teach my big guys to play like they are guards."
Poythress's size enabled him to overpower opponents in high school. At Kentucky—and in the NBA—he will need to expand his game to score against bigger defenders. "I haven't seen him do anything off the dribble," says the East scout. "He doesn't have the ball-handling skills of a small forward. He's a freak athlete with a great body and a great offensive rebounder, but right now he's an undersized power forward."
ARCHIE GOODWIN, 6'5", 198-pound guard from Sylvan Hills High in Little Rock.
The lanky Goodwin is still growing. Doctors have told him he could add another three inches. But the 18-year-old is mature in other ways. "Whether it's the first half or the last two minutes, nothing seems to faze him," says the East scout. Goodwin's athleticism sets him apart—a tomahawk dunk over a defender from Lafayette has gone viral—but his best weapon will be his smooth stroke. "He's a natural scorer," the scout says. "He has good form, and over the season he will become dangerous from the outside."
For Goodwin, identifying his best position is an issue. Calipari has used him at both backcourt spots, with mixed results. He averaged 15.0 points through the first three games but had more turnovers (10) than assists (nine). "He's too wild," says a Western Conference executive. "He looks to score every time. He can get into the paint easily, but he is not looking to pass when he gets there."
WILLIE CAULEY-STEIN, 7-foot, 244-pound center from Olathe Northwest (Kans.) High.
The big man admits to having thought Kentucky was a basketball factory. "When I got here it was like a slap in the face," Cauley-Stein says. "They make sure you are in class, they make sure you go to tutors. You have no room to mess up when it comes to schoolwork."
Cauley-Stein reminds one East exec of Tyson Chandler: "He has that same build, same size and very good defensive instincts." When he doesn't rely on them, his problems start. "He is thinking too much," says the East scout. "When he reacts and makes plays, you can see the skill level he has. But offensively he catches and is thinking, What do I need to do so I don't get yelled at? He just needs to get comfortable and start playing freely, because he has skills around the basket."
In three years as coach of the New Jersey Nets, Calipari was a disaster. He made the playoffs once, in his second season, and was fired 20 games into the lockout-shortened 1999 season after the Nets started 3--17. Now the 53-year-old coach's influence on the NBA is arguably much greater. On opening night 19 players on NBA rosters listed Kentucky as their college, the most of any school, and 13 of them had been coached by Calipari. "I don't know Calipari at all," says a Western Conference G.M., "but people want to stereotype him as this gunslinging, roll-the-balls-out-and-let-'em-play guy. And he's not. He gets big-time players playing together. He makes them better by the end of the season. You can't underestimate that. There are a lot of McDonald's All-Americas not playing in the NBA."
As a coach Calipari is a chameleon; his system changes to suit his personnel. "He is not committed to one way to play," says an East executive. "Bob Knight, Dean Smith, they played one way all the time. Calipari adjusts to his talent." But his basic principles—the Dribble Drive offense, the emphasis on spacing the floor—are taken from the pro game. "We're teaching Dribble Drive because it is a great way to teach how to play," says Calipari, "and the pro game is based as much on spacing as anything else. We don't play on the wings, we play in the corner. That's from the NBA."
Individually, says Calipari, the objective "is to develop a complete player." Patterson played two years at Kentucky before Calipari arrived for the 2009--10 season. Pre-Cal, Patterson played primarily in the paint. Calipari told him to play more from the outside. "He allowed me to go on the perimeter and work on my jump shot," says Patterson, who was drafted 14th overall by Houston in 2010. "That allowed me to guard perimeter players as well. Now that I'm in the NBA, I'm prepared to guard guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, who can play post or on the perimeter."
Players who need more seasoning might be better off taking their chances in the draft. Take next season, for example: Calipari has already signed the strongest class in the country, with commitments from twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison (Richmond, Texas), swingman James Young (Rochester, Mich.) and power forwards Marcus Lee (Antioch, Calif.) and Derek Willis (Mount Washington, Ky.). The nation's No. 1 prospect, Andrew Wiggins, a forward from Thornhill, Ont., who plays for Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, has Kentucky on his short list. "That team could go 40--0 and win the national championship without being challenged," says the East scout. "Those kids are that good."
What does that mean for someone like Goodwin, who could use another year to fill out and expand his game? "He'll probably come out," says the East exec. "And he should, because both the Harrison kids are better than him. And if it's not them, it's someone else."
Most NBA executives agree that this season's freshman class isn't the strongest of Calipari's tenure in Lexington. "There is not a standout talent like there usually are in his recruits," says the G.M. But if they all enter the draft next June? "Stone-cold first-round locks," the G.M. says.
Catch them while you can. "I'll be watching Kentucky all season," says the West exec. "It's NBA U."
ONE AND ... DRAFTED Over the last three years 21 players have been selected in the first round of the NBA draft after finishing their freshman seasons. Nine (42.9%) have been from Kentucky. Texas has the next most, with three.
Photograph by PORTER BINKS
HAIR TODAY ... ... Gone tomorrow. Noel (3) and his signature 'do will soon be in the NBA along with teammates Poythress (22), Cauley-Stein (15) and Goodwin (10). Graduate student Julius Mays (34), who transferred from N.C. State, is an atypical old newcomer.
CLAY JACKSON/THE ADVOCATE MESSENGER
[See caption above]
ERICK W. RASCO
WORK TO DO Goodwin (in white) has drawn the attention of defenders and NBA scouts for his smooth shooting stroke and unflappable demeanor, but ill-timed passes have drawn the ire of Calipari (opposite, top).
[See caption above]