NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Kentucky won with just seven scholarship players again. Quade Green sat out again. Jarred Vanderbilt got everyone’s hopes up and dashed them again.
Here’s everything coach John Calipari said after the Wildcats held on for a 74-67 win at Vanderbilt on Saturday, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s 22 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds, Wenyen Gabriel’s hustle plays and Kevin Knox’s late scoring binge.
On how hard it is do do what they’re doing: “I go back to the team I had at Massachusetts when I played had five and six guys. One of the great mentors I had in this game was Jack Leaman, and he told me I played too many guys. So in 2010 when Coach [John] Wooden was still alive, I called him and said ‘Will you watch my team? We’re not an execution team. Do you have any ideas?’ [Wooden] said you play too many guys. He said ‘I know why you do because kids will transfer.’ We played five guys and they earned their space. I’d play a sixth guy if I needed to. They earned it in practice.
“And so these guys should be happy. They got tired. PJ [Washington] didn’t play well. Maybe he got tired. Hami [Diallo], Shai when they get tired their decision making isn’t the same. But I played two guards 39 minutes a game when I was at UMass. But that was the best team I’ve coached. I didn’t say the most talented, even though Marcus Camby may be one of the most talented guys I’ve ever coached. The rest of the guys were really good — and I hate to tell you they were juniors and seniors. They were veterans. But I only played five. You ask these guys, ‘Would you rather play half a game or play every minute?’ What do you think they’re going to say? ‘I’ll be good. I’ll play every minute.’ ”
On Kevin Knox making plays down the stretch: “Yeah. And I told the guys on the bench on the first one he took, ‘I’m going to keep going at him. Whether we lose or not, he’s got to figure this out.’ And the only way they can figure it out is doing it in the game. They have a desire to win. And I thought Shai — at the end of the day PJ struggled, so it was Shai and Kevin Knox. And then Hami makes that big three in the corner. But then Wenyen [Gabriel]’s effort, you’ve got to keep him in the game. I thought Sacha [Killeya-Jones] played well. I just went to a smaller lineup, and we played good so I just stuck with it. But I thought Sacha did well.”
On saying a few games ago Washington was the team’s tough guy and if Gabriel has joined him: “Wenyen was the other one. He’s always done that. PJ didn’t have the spirit today that he’d had. I told him you can’t lead when you feel like it. It can’t be a sometime thing. It’s gotta be an every-time thing. Because no one is really listening unless you’re the guy taking it at people’s throats. And that is both defensively, rebounding.
“Look, folks, I’m asking for the impossible. I’m playing a bunch of freshmen, and I’m asking them to go on the road in a hostile environment on blackout night, shirt night, and let’s win the game. And it’s going to be close but you’ve gotta tough it out. But that’s what my job is, to ask for the impossible. And then when they leave they look and say ‘I did more than I thought I could do.’ But it’s not fair for Kevin Knox, the youngest freshman in the country, to be put in that environment and those plays and have to make plays and free throws. It’s not fair to him. But that’s how we do this.”
On if it was a matchup thing for Kevin: “He got it at the basket. He made that and-one. But he also got it near the rim. You’re talking about a 6-9 guy that should be attacking around that goal. He’s a good free throw shooter. Again, let me give Vandy credit. They had a great gameplan coming in. They knew what they were going to do. We could not guard them. They may have shot 20-something percent in the first half, but they shot the ball in the second half. They put us in pick-and-rolls. Guys didn’t quite listen to what we were saying. We did not want to switch our big guy onto the guard because we knew he couldn’t guard him. And they were not settling for jumpers. Coach [Bryce Drew] had them running downhill and they made tough layups. Hats off to them.”
On if he knows how long Quade Green will be out: “I don’t. I didn’t even ask him. I didn’t know if Jarred was going to play before the game. I’m just acting like he’s not here. … The problem with being injured when you’re on my teams, I really spend no time with you. Sometimes I forget names. Like I forget who he is. Because I’ve gotta focus on the guys I’m coaching right now. They’ve gotta get healthy and be ready to come back and be ready to go. Jarred’s the same.”
On if Jarred just has to say before a game ‘I’m ready’: “I’d like for him to give me more than what I would’ve gotten today because I didn’t see him all day. I don’t push kids. They know their pain. They also know their bodies. I’m going to tell you what happens when you’re injured. It’s not physically, it’s as much mentally. And then conditioning. Those are the two things you’re missing. When he’s ready he’ll be here with us.”
On Nick Richards: “He’s going to have to go rebound the ball, bend his legs and do what we’re asking him to do. You can’t stand stiff-legged and think you’re going to guard somebody. Are you doing that because you’re tired? I don’t know. But you’re doing it and every time they drive right around you. Second thing is, if you go in and you don’t rebound and the guy grabs the ball for you, I told him after the game, ‘Guys, if I stick you in there and I’m saying you’ve gotta rebound and the first play, walk to the bench. You don’t have to see if I’m taking you out. You know I’m taking you out.’
“I told him what to do and he got the rebound. ‘He pushed me in the back.’ Push him back harder. I don’t know what to tell you. But you’ve gotta get the ball. So, you know, I woke up this morning thinking we should start the game and go right at Nick. That was my thought when I woke up this morning, so I haven’t lost any confidence in him, but he’s gotta perform. This is about winning. Do you leave him in the game and losing? No. Not doing it. Not happening.”
On how many close games UK will have: “I would say a bunch of them. I would tell you our strength of schedule, I believe, is in the top 10. I think our RPI is sixth. I know we’re ranked 29th, but our RPI is sixth. Is it seven now Jerry? Thanks for correcting me. And the strength of schedule, these kids go on the road and they’re not intimidated. Again, a bunch of young kids.”