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."