NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Kentucky basketball won an SEC game with just seven available scholarship players for the second time in as many tries Saturday at Vanderbilt, and coach John Calipari isn’t sure when this shorthanded act will end.
After the No. 21 Wildcats’ 74-67 victory to improve to 14-3 overall and 4-1 in the league, Calipari couldn’t say when starting point guard Quade Green will return from a back strain that cost him the past two games or when 5-star freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt will make his UK debut.
“I didn’t even ask [Green],” Calipari said. “I didn’t know if Jarred was going to play before the game when I was doing the board. I’m just acting like he’s not here, and if he is — if they are, they are.”
Vanderbilt, who injured his left foot for the third time since high school during the preseason and only recently returned to practice, caused quite a stir in the hours before tip-off Saturday. A video from Kentucky’s official Instagram account showed Vanderbilt’s uniform hanging in the locker room — as it has for several games this season — setting off wild speculation that he was ready to play for the first time.
Then Vanderbilt participated in almost all of the team’s pregame warm-up activities, a step up from a weeks-long routine of getting a few shots up hours before games and then switching into sweat pants and watching from the bench. This time, he did a full stretch with the team and most of their drills and was still in his game shorts and a long sleeve T-shirt when UK tipped off Saturday.
When the Wildcats came out for their final pregame layup line, Vanderbilt started to head to the bench with the Cats’ other three injured players — Green, Tai Wynyard (back) and Jemarl Baker (knee) — then veered back onto the court to participate. It seems even he is wavering on his readiness to return.
For his part, Calipari, who said Tuesday that Vanderbilt has looked good in practice and physically can play, the coach is not begging the 6-foot-9 McDonald’s All-American to play. That isn’t his style.
“The problem with being injured when you’re on my teams: I really spend no time with you, and sometimes — I don’t want to say this — I forget names. Like, I even forget who he is. Who are you?” Calipari said Saturday. “Because I’ve got to focus on the guys I’m coaching right now. They’ve got to get healthy and be ready to come back, and Jarred is the same.”
So what does Vanderbilt have to do to get in his first college game? Just tap Calipari on the shoulder in the pregame and say he’s ready to go?
“I hope he’d give me more [notice] than what I would’ve gotten [Saturday], because I didn’t see him [Saturday]. I hope,” Calipari said. “But I don’t push kids. They know their pain, they know their bodies, and I’m going to tell you what happens: It’s not physically; it’s as much mentally and then conditioning. Those are the two things. So when he’s ready, he’ll be there with us.”
Teammates hope that is soon. They’ve squeaked out wins over Texas A&M and Vanderbilt despite having just a two-man bench.
“I feel like he’s getting there, he’s making steps every day,” said freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had 22 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds Saturday. “I think we’re all just ready for him to come back. We know it’s going to be excited to play with him. He’s going to bring a whole new element to the team. We just can’t wait.”
But like anxious Kentucky fans, they’ll have to — at least a little bit longer.