It has not been a Josh Harrellson-like, Cinderella-esque season for Eloy Vargas in his senior year at the University of Kentucky.
He has not emerged from a reserve role to a starting spot, he doesn’t play significant minutes and he’s not expected to lead an underdog NCAA Tournament run in March. But it has been far from a disappointing season for Vargas.
In fact, the way he talked about his season on Friday as he enters his final month of collegiate eligibility, it’s been a satisfying journey since he transferred from Miami-Dade Community College two years ago to play at Kentucky.
One of two seniors on a 22-1 team ranked No. 1 in the nation, Vargas is pleased with the strides he’s made this season. Although the tangible improvements are difficult to quantify given the limited minutes he’s seen, Vargas said he’s improved on a lot of “little things that nobody sees on the court.”
“I’m getting a lot better,” Vargas said. “I’m in better condition, bigger, stronger because I’m in the weight room more now and doing conditioning. It’s a big help for me for the future and for the team.”
Varags is averaging 7.2 minutes, 1.1 points and 2.2 rebounds in 21 games this season, very close to what he posted a season ago.
And yet when one watches Vargas this season, they see a more confident player, a stronger low-post big man who understands his role and has taken pride in the evolution from the player he was a year ago to the one he is now. Following the win at LSU, a game in which Vargas recorded three rebounds in seven minutes, John Calipari singled out Vargas in the postgame locker room for playing to his strengths and playing within the confines of the offense.
What: No. 1/1 UK (22-1, 8-0 SEC) vs. South Carolina (9-12, 1-6 SEC)
When: Saturday, 6 p.m. ET
Where: Colonial Life Center (18,000)
Game notes: UK | South Carolina
Video interviews: Cal, Lamb and Vargas
South Carolina File
Record: 9-12, 1-6 in SEC
Head coach: Darrin Horn (59-56 at South Carolina)
Player to watch: Malik Cooke (12.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals)
Series history: UK leads 45-10
Last meeting: UK won 79-64 on Jan. 7
“Eloy, you did great,” Coach Cal said. “I’m so happy you went in and played the way you played.”
On what is probably a more gifted team this year in terms of talent than last season’s, Vargas finds himself as the eighth guy behind a pretty steep wall of seven super skilled players.
“I just want to continue to make sure I’m doing the right things,” Vargas said. “I’m just waiting so when anybody gets in foul trouble I’m ready to play.”
Vargas admitted that it’s challenging to stay loose and be ready for an opportunity, but he realizes that few people have the chance to play a potentially key part on the top-ranked team in the country.
“It’s kind of hard coming off the bench,” Vargas said. “When Coach Cal calls your name you’ve got to be ready because you don’t know when he’s going to call you. You’ve just got to be ready to jump off the bench.”
Vargas is stuck behind a stable of future NBA lottery picks in Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones, and when they need a breather or get into foul trouble, talented freshman Kyle Wiltjer is usually the first one to get the nod. But Vargas has bought into Calipari’s system and understands that if he does his job and sticks to the script, there’s a good chance he’ll get a chance to play professionally overseas.
“Not a lot of people got size like me,” Vargas said.
Vargas went head to head with NBA players like Al Horford and Charlie Villanueva this summer playing for Coach Cal’s Dominican Republic team, and now he has the extra benefit of matching up every day in practice with an athletic specimen that few have ever seen.
“The NBA guys are more physical and they know how to play you, but (Davis is) so long that he can block anybody’s shot,” Vargas said. “You throw it up at anytime and you don’t know if he’s going to block your shot. You think you’ve got a wide open shot and from nowhere he comes and blocks it.”
After Saturday’s game at South Carolina (6 p.m. on ESPN), Vargas will get another shot at his old team, Florida, where he played his freshman year before transferring to Miami-Dade Community College. Vargas seemed to take his game up a notch in the three matchups with the Gators last season, averaging 6.3 minutes and 3.0 rebounds.
“I’m going to be ready for it,” Vargas said. “I’ve played good the three times we’ve played them. I just (get) more excited to play them because that’s the school I went to and I left.”
Cats just behind schedule
Coach Cal, at least during the time he’s been at UK, has been the master of underselling of his teams.
For one, he likes to let his team’s play do the talking, and two, it serves as motivation for his players. On teams dripping with NBA talent, keeping a level head is important as well.
So, you can imagine how surprised reporters were Friday when Calipari basically suggested that his team is right on schedule – or pretty darn close.
“Probably about where they should be,” Calipari said. “I’m not going to tell you we’re behind but I’m not going to tell you we’re ahead. We’re not ahead. Some of the guys have to take everything up a notch. We’re still trying to figure out sometimes where we’re playing, how to finish plays off. We’re not quite there yet. It’s February and we’re playing like a February team.”
When a TV reporter pointed out that it’s one of the first times Calipari has expressed pleasure with the timetable of his team, he smiled and tried to backtrack.
“What is this, the 2nd of February? It’s the 3rd? So they’re playing like it’s the 2nd of February,” Calipari said to the laughter of reporters.
Hood likely to redshirt
With only a month of the regular season left and Jon Hood still rehabilitating from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered during the summer, Calipari said Hood will in all likelihood redshirt.
“I don’t think he’ll play this year, not at this late a date,” Calipari said. “There’s no reason to use up a year of eligibility because of that. He’s just now, I see him on the treadmill, so I think he’s a ways away.”
Both Hood and Coach Cal have left the door open all season for a possible return, but the chances of him coming back and making a significant contribution at this point in the year with the current rotation are very unlikely.
By taking a medical redshirt, Hood would still have two years of eligibility left. He averaged 4.8 minutes in 33 games for last year’s Final Four team as a sophomore.
Coach Cal’s team has been ranked at or near the top of several major defensive categories all season long, including defensive field-goal percentage, points per game and blocks. But even the most defensive minded of coaches would have to be impressed with UK’s recent three-game swing.
For the first time since the 1950-51 season, UK held three straight opponents to 50 points or fewer.
“We’re grinding it out at the end and that gives that other team probably six less possessions, which is what we’re trying to do,” Calipari said. “That’s helping us. I always say, teams that lead the nation in defensive points, when you watch them offensively they hold the ball so that other team has way less opportunity. What’s happened to us is seven minutes to go, six minutes to go, we’re pulling it back and grinding out the ball.”
UK is currently No. 1 in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (36.0) and blocked shots per game (9.3).
Kentucky’s turnaround on the road in the league this season has been pretty remarkable, even for the top-ranked team in the land. The Cats, who were 2-6 on the road in the SEC last year, are now 4-0 heading into the game at South Carolina.
If you’re looking for a reason why they’ve been so much better, some of the players attribute it to chemistry.
“We have fun,” sophomore guard Doron Lamb said. “Just watch basketball games, joke around in the hotel room.”
Lamb said he’s quite the prankster on road trips and said he’s become notorious for pouring water on his teammates when they try to go to sleep.
“I do it to everybody,” Lamb said. “Everybody knows they can’t sleep in front of me because I’ll wet you.”
Calipari said he doesn’t mind the pranks because it’s all part of building the team bond.
“You go on the road and you’re 24/7 for two days and you’re together at meals, at shoot around, at film sessions,” Calipari said. “They start coming together and that’s why this time of the year, I like it and I really don’t mind going on the road, especially when you’re just trying to bring your team together.”