Coach Cal says there’s still time for UK to be ‘story of the year’

There have been a lot pieces to pick up since the Wildcats had their doors blown off Saturday.

There has been talk of Kentucky missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since John Calipari took the job. There’s been the embarrassment of the worst loss in the Coach Cal era. Hope, for some, has disappeared with the loss of Nerlens Noel. And now Calipari has had to face questions about his “uncoachable” comments on Saturday.

None of that matters now, the Cats say, as they prepare for Vanderbilt (Wednesday at 8 p.m. on the SEC Network) and the final six games of the regular season. They can either settle for what has happened to them and plan for next year or do something about it and fight back, as Coach Cal urged in a post on Sunday.

Because for everything that has gone right or wrong this season, Kentucky’s fate has yet to be determined.

Sure, the 30-point loss at Tennessee over the weekend looked bad, but it was UK’s first game without Noel. Not all hope is lost quite yet.

“We can make what we want of this season,” Calipari said. “Whatever we want to make of this season, we can do. We could be the story of the year – of recovery and all that. We can do that if they choose to do that.”

But the story starts now for the Cats (17-8, 8-4 Southeastern Conference), and it starts with putting Noel’s injury and Saturday’s debacle behind them.

The Basics

What: Kentucky (17-8, 8-4 SEC) vs.  Vanderbilt (10-14, 4-8 SEC)
When: Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | Vanderbilt
From Cal: 
I believe in this team and I believe in its fight
Cal, Mays and Polson interviews

Vanderbilt File

Record: 10-14, 4-8 SEC
Head coach: Kevin Stallings (271-173 at Vanderbilt)
Ranking: N/A
Nickname: Commodores
Player to watch: Kedren Johnson (13.7 points, 4.3 rebounds)
Series history: UK leads 137-45
Last meeting: UK won 60-58 on Jan. 10

TV/Radio Coverage

TV: SEC Network
Radio: UK IMG
Live stats: Gametracker
Live stream:
Live blog:

“I don’t think you just shrug it off like that, but there’s nothing we can do,” graduate student Julius Mays said. “We can’t go back to it, so there’s no need to look back on it and think, ‘Oh, we should have did this, we should have did that.’ It’s what we need to do right now. That game’s over. Obviously it’s not how we wanted it to go, but it’s done and over so there’s nothing you can go back and do about it.”

The mental state of this team is certainly in question.

Within in a week’s span, the Cats took a humbling pasting at Florida, lost their best player for the season and then got rocked by Tennessee in their first game without Noel. What was already a fragile psyche – Calipari admitted his team had its worst practice in four years at Kentucky before the Tennessee game – took a demoralizing shot in Knoxville, Tenn.

“I don’t think it affects our belief,” junior guard Jarrod Polson said. “I think we think we’re a good team. Maybe we were a little shocked. We didn’t realize how much he affected the defensive end, but we’re trying to get over it, see what we can do defensively now without him. I think we’re going to have a good scheme, so hopefully things work out.”

Polson, one of the few bright spots in the loss at Tennessee, thinks the loss could do some positive for the season-ending stretch. The Cats tried to take the loss of Noel in stride and go about their business as usual, but the fact remains that it won’t be without the nation’s top shot blocker inside.

They quickly learned that things are not only tougher without Noel, they are going to have to play a lot better without him than they did with him.

Julius Mays has been vocal about his displeasure with some of his teammates’ fight since Saturday’s loss to Tennessee. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

“I don’t know if it would have gotten any better with Nerlens in that game,” Polson said. “We just didn’t play well, so I guess it kind of was a wake-up call. It made us realize that we do need to work on some things.”

It seems crazy for the perception of the season to have changed so quickly – the Cats had won five straight before the Florida game – but that’s the way the basketball season goes.

Even during the winning streak, Calipari reiterated that his team had a long ways to go, and he was doing everything he could to try to get his players to turn the corner.

Just because they’ve hit adversity at an inopportune time doesn’t mean he is going to give up in his efforts to change this team. He’s not accepting average, even when his most elite player is gone.

“I’m not going to change,” Coach Cal said. “Just keep coaching them. I’m going to do everything I can, push whatever buttons. I’m reading any book, trying to give them anything, but the reality of it is they’ve got to go on the court and start performing better.”

If this were a normal season under normal circumstances, Calipari would use the bench as motivation to get his players to perform better. But now more than ever, with Noel gone for the year, he doesn’t have that luxury because of limited depth.

Some players will have to play no matter how they are playing, and Coach Cal can only hope that they buy in with such little time left.

“The frustrating thing is the bench isn’t my friend,” Calipari said. “What do I mean by that? You shouldn’t play like four games in a row, now are you ready to do this right? We played without you and we played well. We don’t have that luxury, so right now we’re just trying to get it done and get them to accept how they’re going to have to play.”

Calipari has talked so much about the players taking control of the team, and it’s either now or never for that to happen. Coach Cal said in Sunday’s post that he still believes in the fight of his team, but it’s on them to fight their way back now.

“If anybody’s not going to fight, then we don’t want them to be a part of it,” Mays said. “We need everybody that we have here and it’s going to take all of us. We can’t have one player not on the same page as us. I let it be known and I think guys accept it.”

Team stats

(national rankings, which includes games through Feb. 17, in parentheses)

  UK Vanderbilt
Scoring offense 74.4 (35) 59.1 (328)
Scoring defense 63.8 (105) 60.3 (42)
FG percentage 48.1 (13) 41.2 (273)
FG percentage defense 38.9 (26) 41.1 (33)
3-point percentage 36.3 (76) 35.4 (107)
3-point percentage defense 31.8 (89) 31.9 (91)
FT percentage 65.0 (289) 60.7 (336)
Rebound margin +4.5 (57) -1.6 (241)
Steals per game 6.3 (230) 5.5 (289)
Blocks per game 7.3 (2) 3.6 (164)
Assists per game 14.3 (88) 11.6 (269)
Turnover margin -0.8 (228) -0.9 (237)

Stat leaders

(UK’s stat leaders does not include Nerlens Noel, who is out for the season with a knee injury)

  UK Vanderbilt
Points per game Archie Goodwin (13.6) Kedren Johnson (13.7)
Rebounds per game Alex Poythress (6.2) Kevin Bright (5.5)
Field-goal percentage Willie Cauley-Stein (62.5) Sheldon Jeter (48.5)
3-point percentage Kyle Wiltjer (40.8) Sheldon Jeter (41.9)
Free-throw percentage Julius Mays (83.3) Rod Odom (69.6)
Assists per game Archie Goodwin (3.2) Kedren Johnson (3.3)
Blocks per game Willie Cauley-Stein (1.7) Josh Henderson (0.8)
Steals per game Archie Goodwin (1.1) Kedren Johnson (1.3)