ST. LOUIS — John Calipari is damned if he does scrimmage, damned if he doesn’t, apparently.
See, in the coach’s mind, Kentucky dug itself out of a four-game losing streak and launched a four-game winning streak because it started scrimmaging regularly a few weeks back. And then, as Calipari sees it, when he eased off the intensity in practice, the Wildcats fell flat on their faces in the regular-season finale at Florida.
“Prior to that, we were scrimmaging every chance we could,” Calipari said. “Every once in awhile, my decisions aren’t right. Few and far between, but there are times they’re not right [and] this was probably one of them. [Not scrimmaging last week] took an edge off some guys that we needed to compete and have more of a competitive spirit.”
So, logically, he cranked it back up and started scrimmaging again Tuesday as fourth-seeded Kentucky (21-10) prepares for an SEC Tournament quarterfinal against Georgia on Friday afternoon. And, as luck would have it, freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt suffered the latest in his long history of injuries Tuesday.
It’s unclear whether the 6-foot-9 former McDonald’s All-American — one of the nation’s best rebounders — will play this week in St. Louis. UK officially lists him as “day to day.” The good news is SEC Country sources say this injury is not to the left foot he’s injured three times since high school, rather an ankle sprain that doesn’t have Calipari overly concerned.
No matter the significance of the injury, however, the Cats coach made the right call in pushing his team again this week.
“Because scrimmaging against each other, we’re all fighting — for you could say minutes or whatever it is — we’re all fighting against each other to try to make each other better,” point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And I guess we fell off that a little bit last week and then went into the Florida game not competing how we were in the four previous games. I think that’s a big part of us being as good as we can be.”
When you rely on seven freshmen and two sophomores, with nary a junior or senior to be found, there is bound to be what Calipari calls “slippage,” especially in defensive intensity. That was the case in Gainesville on Saturday, when the Gators shot the Cats out of the gym.
So Kentucky scrimmaged Tuesday and Wednesday, injury be damned, and here’s betting the team will be better for it in St. Louis. But more importantly, next week in the NCAA Tournament.
“The scrimmaging did help us a lot, just getting to know each other better on the court, playing with different lineups, getting a feel for each other,” freshman star Kevin Knox said. “We just have to come in mentally prepared, make sure we play hard every game, because now it’s win or go home and a lot of teams’ seasons are on the line. We gotta come out and play hard like our season is on the line.”
Soon enough, it will be. In the meantime, the nature of a conference tournament could be advantageous for the young Cats. To play for the SEC title, UK would need to play three games in as many days — meaning no time to nod off.
“I think we’ll definitely benefit from that,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We’ll have to be in that mode the whole time. When we struggle, we take lapses and we kind of chill, you could say, or relax a little bit. The tournament will force us to be on our heels, on our toes, and we’ll be good.”