By LARRY VAUGHT
Numerous times Kentucky coach John Calipari has said he doesn’t want, or need, a deep roster to compete with the nation’s best teams. However, this season apparently is one time Calipari wishes he had more productive depth, especially with the season-ending injury to Nerlens Noel.
“The frustrating thing is the bench isn’t my friend. What do I mean by that? You shouldn’t play like four games in a row, now are you ready to do this right? We played without you and we played well. We don’t have that luxury. So right now we’re just trying to get it done and get them to accept how they’re going to have to play,” said Calipari Tuesday.
The wounded Wildcats, who have lost their last two games by a combined 47 points, host Vanderbilt tonight in what seems like a must-win for UK to keep any hope of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
“I think they were embarrassed by what happened (in a 30-point loss at Tennessee Saturday),” Calipari said. “That team came out of the gate chewing nails, we weren’t ready for it, whether Nerlens was behind there I don’t think it would have mattered. Our thing is how do we play now? What do we do? I think they understand.”
Calipari admitted it was risky not to have nine or 10 quality players to try and keep happy versus having fewer players who all get to play more. This season he’s been frustrated by the effort and production of several players, but has had little option but to keep playing them because of a lack of depth. That was compounded when point guard Ryan Harrow missed four games for personal reasons, center Willie Cauley-Stein missed four games with a knee injury and now Noel is out for the season.
“You lose your whole team (to the NBA after last season’s national title)) and have a great (recruiting) class, but they’re not quiet to the (same level). You know what I’m saying? That’s the risk you take,” Calipari said. “That’s part of the deal here. The other risk you have is I don’t like having 12 guys on scholarship who all deserve to play. If you have three or four injuries or this or that happens … a couple guys just don’t have the mental makeup for this. Even though you’ve talked about it — ‘This isn’t for everybody, Can’t hide you.’ All the things that I’ve said for four years. You get exposed here. Sometimes it happens.
“Now the issue for me as a coach is: Just keep coaching them. I’m not going to change. Just keep coaching them. I’m going to do everything I can, push whatever buttons. I’m reading any book, trying to give them anything, but the reality of it is they’ve got to go on the court and start performing better. What happens to us right now: One team wins a one-point game and a three-point game and we go to Florida, where everybody’s losing, lose a game pretty big and now it’s the psyche of: Are you tough enough to walk through that? Are you tough enough to put that behind you and understand what the feeling is when you have a great game? Great games don’t always lead to wins.
“Two teams battling and executing and playing well, you can walk off the court and feel disappointed but really good about yourself. It’s a peace of mind. It’s not just winning and losing. We’ve got to get to that point, and worry about the process, having enjoyment, all those kinds of things. And it’s late, but this is a new team.”
Calipari again used his theory that what “we’re doing here has never been done with young guys” because of the players UK has sent early to the NBA draft the last three years.
“It’s not what we want to do. It’s just how it’s all played out,” the coach said. “The second thing is, there’s not been a team that’s been one of those teams that’s lost their best player the last six-seven games and have the guy be the kind of player that you have to change a little bit and tweak how you play.
“Well, the only way you can learn what’s working and not working is in the games. Then you have some time to adjust, a day or two, and then you’ve got to throw it in the next game. That’s where we are. There’s no — you can’t just skip steps. But I’m accepting it and saying to these guys, ‘Let’s go,’ and we’re still getting after it.”