BOZICH | Vanderbilt loss make Calipari wonder if Kentucky frontcourt can ring the bell
A no-show by Kentucky's front court at Vanderbilt had John Calipari (and others) wondering if the UK forwards and centers will respond during the NCAA Tournament.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) – Kentucky lost another basketball game Saturday, the eighth game the Wildcats have given away this season.
At Vanderbilt, the students were convinced it was such a big deal beating Kentucky (74-62) that they stormed the Memorial Gymnasium floor and then danced, hollered and celebrated for nearly 10 minutes.
Here’s the truth: Losing the game was not a big deal for Kentucky. The Wildcats (21-8 overall and 11-5 in the league) remain tied for first in the Southeastern Conference with Texas A&M. Good teams lose every weekend in college basketball – and the Wildcats remain a Top 20 team, ranked 10th by Ken Pomeroy, 11th by Jeff Sagarin Predictor and 14th in the Ratings Percentage Index.
This is what is a big deal for the Wildcats: John Calipari’s frontcourt played as if they were already on spring break.
This Kentucky team played like they needed Derek Willis as badly as the 2014 team needed Julius Randle or the 1998 team needed Scott Padgett or the 1970 team needed Dan Issel.
I kid – mostly. With two games remaining in the regular season, this team is still looking for frontcourt volunteers, guys prepared to play with offensive creativity and confidence. Willis had been doing that before he injured his ankle a week earlier. Toughness and productivity inside are non-negotiable if you expect to win at least three or four games in the NCAA Tournament. Ask the coach.
“What disappoints me is this was the kind of game, this is like an NCAA Tournament game,” Calipari said. “And it was like some guys didn’t ring the bell. Now you become a little worried, ‘Can they ring the bell?’ “
Can they? UK was outrebounded by two and outscored in the paint by 10.
Calipari was told that Marcus Lee, his junior forward, said the story of the game was that the Kentucky frontcourt did not contribute enough to assist Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe.
“I don’t think that’s true,” Calipari said, crisply. “I don’t think they contributed anything.”
I side with Calipari.
Calipari used four guys – Lee, Alex Poythress, Skal Labissiere and Isaac Humphries – who stand 6 feet 8 or taller.
They combined to play 68 minutes. They scored eight points, all by Lee. They contributed 11 rebounds, only two more than Murray, who is a 6-4 guard.
“The game got rough,” Calipari said. “Either you relish that or you run from it.”
What’s the minimum you’d like to get from your frontcourt?
“Anything right now,” he said. “Just give us anything. Give us a couple of blocks. Give us a couple of baskets … Their frontcourt players were better than ours today. They weren’t when they played us in Lexington.”
You want several more snapshots of the timid play of Kentucky’s forwards and centers? They combined to attempt five shots. They made two. Lee slammed a lob pass. Lee converted a tip in. That’s it. They created nothing for themselves.
Kentucky did not get a field goal from those four guys in the last 26:55. UK finished the game missing 11 of its final 12 shots.
Poythress failed to scored for the first time in 39 games, a streak that started after he went 0-for-2 in 15 minutes against Georgia in the 2014 SEC Tournament. At least Poythress shot twice in that game.
He had no field goal attempts against Vandy. He also had no spunk. Several times Calipari pulled him from the game and Poythress w-a-l-k-e-d to join him at the baseline bench even as the game resumed.
What happened to Poythress, a guy who has averaged 10 points and 6 rebounds when healthy this season?
“You have to ask him,” Calipari said. “Next question.”
Not possible. Lee and Murray were the only two players available to take post-game questions. Labissiere failed to score in eight minutes, bungling one easy shot at the rim. Humphries shot twice and missed twice. Credit Lee with all nine frontcourt points.
Damian Jones and Frank Kornet are nice players in the Vanderbilt front court, but it wasn’t like Kentucky was trying to attack Michigan State or Virginia.
Good thing Murray played like he cared about winning the SEC regular-season title. He scored 21 points in the first 20 minutes and had 29 with 11 to play. He made half of his dozen baskets from three-point range, but also showed 11 NBA scouts a nice mid-range floater as well as the ability to drive. Credit Murray with 33.
Calipari said that Ulis told him that he is not fatigued but his shooting performance suggested tired legs. Ulis missed 15 of 20 shots, including all seven from distance.
“I was trying to back him off during practice,” Calipari said. “He said, ‘Don’t do that … it will screw me up … let’s go up and down.’ “
Credit Briscoe with eight points and call it a day because only four Kentucky players scored. That’s the first time that happened this season.
That’s why Calipari was asked several questions about Willis, who averaged better than 14 points in the four games before he sprained his ankle at Texas A&M:
How much did Kentucky miss him, and will he return on Tuesday when the Wildcats visit Florida?
“It probably hurt us,” Calipari said “But again if he’s not fighting and rebounding and doing stuff … if you watch the game against (Vanderbilt) the last time, he was not a factor. He was not a factor in that game. He made one jump shot.”
What are the chances Willis will play in Gainesville?
“I have no idea,” Calipari said. “He’ll probably take a picture of his ankle and send it to you guys.”
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