John Clay: Kentucky's bench gone missing in New Orleans

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 10, 2012 

NEW ORLEANS — On Friday, LSU played rough. The Tigers muscled Kentucky. That was Trent Johnson's blueprint. Put a body on the Cats in hopes of frustrating the nation's No. 1 team. LSU found success, not victory.

Saturday, Florida played fast. The Gators wanted to go, go, go. Billy Donovan's club wanted to shoot three-pointers and make Kentucky's big men run. The Gators found success, not victory.

The common goal: Wear Kentucky down.

The reason: For a team without much depth in the first place, here in the SEC Tournament, Kentucky has become a five-man team.

John Calipari's club got exactly zero bench points in its 60-51 win over LSU in Friday's quarterfinal. Darius Miller played 17 minutes without scoring. Kyle Wiltjer played seven minutes without scoring.

In Saturday's 74-71 win over the Gators, the bench production mushroomed to three points. That came on a single shot — Wiltjer's three-pointer with 6:20 left.

For just the fourth time in his career, the first time since his sophomore season, the senior Miller went scoreless for a second consecutive game. He missed all three of his shots, two of them three-pointers.

"I've just got to come out and play better tomorrow," said last year's SEC Tournament MVP afterward.

Just as, after a meeting with Calipari and a hotel room visit from teammate Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague rebounded from his subpar effort against LSU to score 15 points, including two clutch free throws with 14.5 seconds remaining.

UK boasted double-figure games from all five of its starters. Doron Lamb scored 16. Davis had 15 points, 12 rebounds. Terrence Jones had 15 points, nine boards. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 10 points, eight boards.

But when your team is 32-1, and it's Selection Sunday, and when you close your eyes you can almost see that eighth national championship banner being hung in Rupp Arena, Kentucky fans worry about what could go wrong.

They ask: "Are we deep enough to win it all?"

This had been a minor concern up to now. UK's bench had been more quality than quantity. Miller was voted the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year. Wiltjer had shown flashes of being a significant offensive factor.

Up until this point, Kentucky's main depth worry had been possible foul trouble involving Davis. To that end, Calipari recently began practicing Davis with the second team so that Jones could play center, in case of such a game circumstance.

Florida played it a different way. His Gators not possessing the size or length to play the Cats in a half-court game, Donovan pushed his team to beat UK down the floor.

On one possession, when Florida's Scottie Wilbekin corraled a rebound in front of the Florida bench, Donovan windmilled his arms for the reserve guard to get the ball up the floor — right now.

"They were trying to run away from our length," said UK's Jones. "(They didn't want) me or Anthony to be down low when they tried to get into the lane, and hopefully get layups out of that by not having the shot-blockers down low. It was real good for them in the first half, but I think we adjusted to that in the second half."

After its win over Alabama on Friday, Florida players talked about how they thought they could tire UK out by running, and even questioned the Cats' conditioning.

"I definitely think we're in good condition," Jones said. "I just think it was difficult trying to run back to shooters as well as they can shoot, little guys just running with the ball. ... We just had to communicate."

Down 56-51 with 10:42 left, Kentucky went on a 14-0 run for a nine-point lead. The Gators rallied to pull within two points at 65-63 but could get no closer.

On this day, the five survived.

But on the road back to New Orleans, will it take more?

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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