John Calipari was not a fountain of optimism during an appearance at the Lexington Rotary Club on Thursday.
For perhaps the first time publicly, the Kentucky coach spoke of the possibility of freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt not playing this season. Vanderbilt has been sidelined since the preseason because of a foot injury.
The initial prognosis for his return was January. Later in the preseason, Calipari suggested Vanderbilt might return sooner than expected because he had progressed to the point of his rehabilitation and return being on a timetable.
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“He’s not practicing yet … ,” Calipari told the Rotarians. “I don’t know. But I don’t push. If he doesn’t play all year, he doesn’t play all year. He’s got to do what he feels he can do. …
“You put a kid out there and he’s hurt, you’re basically hurting his career. If he’s ready to go, we’re ready to play him. But I’ll leave that up to him.”
When asked at an afternoon news conference for an update on Vanderbilt, Calipari said the player was only doing individual workouts.
“We’ll let it play out,” Calipari said. The UK coach acknowledged that there’s not a definitive answer on when — or if — Vanderbilt can play this season.
“If he tells me it’s good for him to play, then he will play,” Calipari said.
Besides recovering from the injury, Vanderbilt has the additional obstacle of getting back into playing shape, Calipari said. When Vanderbilt has participated in informal shooting before home games, he has taken shots while standing still. He moved carefully and slowly to retrieve rebounds.
The 30-plus minute question-and-answer session at the Rotary Club included the inevitable: Will Kentucky win the national championship?
“Well, I don’t know,” Calipari said. “I’m trying to stay in the moment, and keep these kids in the moment. And I’m trying real hard.”
Instead of thinking of victory parades next April, Calipari said he’s trying to concentrate on having fun and avoiding frustration.
“I need to have a ball with this this year because they’re the youngest team I’ve ever coached,” he said. “I can’t get frustrated because if I get frustrated, they will. So I have to really figure out how to have fun.”
Kentucky’s season took a metaphorical turn this week. After having played seven games in a 17-day span, UK has practiced more this week without the concern of a mid-week game. Calipari said he has experimented more this week on both offense and defense.
“We still turn the ball over too much,” he said. “We don’t rebound as well as we really should. So we zeroed in on that some.”
UK players spoke of practice being different in a week with no immediate game ahead. After beating Illinois-Chicago on Sunday, the Cats will not play again until Saturday afternoon against Harvard.
PJ Washington said that practices this week had not varied from the season-long concentration on defense and rebounding.
“I feel if we get good on defense, there’s not a lot of teams that can beat us,” he said.
UK has added plays to use against zone or man-to-man defenses, Washington said.
Absent the need to prepare for an upcoming game led to more spirited practices, UK players said.
“It’s more high intensity,” Brad Calipari said. “There’s more body-to-body contact on these days when we don’t have a game.”
Harvard at Kentucky
3:30 p.m. (ESPN)