For Kentucky, the key is making winning plays down the stretch
Kentucky Coach John Calipari said he woke up Saturday morning with Nick Richards on his mind.
“Thinking we should start the game going right at Nick,” Calipari said. “So I haven’t lost my confidence in him.”
The idea of Richards dominating against Vanderbilt later Saturday seemed realistic. The last two big men to face Vandy — Chris Silva of South Carolina and Grant Williams of Tennessee — scored career-high points. “Our big problem is people scoring in the paint,” Vandy Coach Bryce Drew said after Kentucky beat his team 74-67.
Even with UK short-handed with four players sidelined by injuries, Richards had little to do with the victory. He scored four points and grabbed three rebounds in 12 minutes. This followed a two-point game against Texas A&M on Tuesday.
Although saying he still had confidence in Richards, Calipari added, “But he’s got to perform. This is about winning. You leave him in the game and lose? No. Not doing it. Nah. Nooooo. Not happening.”
Calipari made this clear twice in the second half. Richards entered the game at the 15:13 mark. Then, 51 seconds later, he went to the bench after committing his third foul.
Calipari put Richards in the game with 9:45 left. Three seconds later, after Richards failed to rebound a missed Vandy free throw, he went back to the bench.
Calipari suggested that Richards failed to do the one thing the coach instructed: rebound. The ensuing benching should not have been a surprise, the UK coach said.
“Walk to the bench,” Calipari said. “You don’t have to look to see if I’m taking you out. You know I’m taking you out.”
Kevin Knox called Richards one of UK’s hardest workers, a first-in-the-gym-and-last-to-leave kind of player.
“All coach really wants him to do is rebound and defend and block shots and just run to the basket,” Knox said.
Actually, that sounded like quite a bit, but Knox said, “He’s got one of the easiest jobs on the team.”
Knox voiced confidence in Richards’ re-emergence.
“He’s not getting it done,” Knox said. “He’ll keep working, and he’ll get there soon.”
PJ Washington is UK’s designated leader. Calipari found him off his game and suggested that leadership requires consistency.
“PJ didn’t have the spirit today that he’s had,” the UK coach said. “And I told him, ‘You can’t lead just when you feel like it. It can’t be a sometime thing. It’s got to be an every-time thing because no one wants to really listen unless you’re the guy taking it at the (opponents’) throats.’”
On a teleconference Friday, Calipari said he had to teach Washington how to lead.
“How he has to be on the court all the time to really be the leader he needs to be,” the UK coach said. “In other words, when you come with that competitive spirit, you’re in that frame of mind, I need you to lead. When (you think it’s) time to jerk around or joke or grab, that brings practice down. Then I don’t need you to lead.
“All this stuff (about) leaders are born, that’s crap. That’s a bunch of crap.”
After five games, Kentucky has outscored its Southeastern Conference opponents 353-348. The average margin for UK is 70.6-69.6 in five league games.
Knox said he expected more of the same the rest of the season. “We have to be able to show we’re mature and make winning plays down the stretch,” he said.
Drew dismissed the notion that any team, including Kentucky, will break from the SEC pack and dominate.
“I don’t see it happening,” he said. “Now, there might be a situation where a team wins a lot of really, really close games, and probably a couple they shouldn’t have won. I don’t think you’re going to see a team really dominate.”
Calipari said he had no update on the four UK players sidelined by injury: Jarred Vanderbilt (foot), Jemarl Baker (knee), Tai Wynyard (back) and Quade Green (back).
Because his focus is on the active players, Calipari said he needed those injured to tell him when they’re ready to play.
Calipari said the mental challenge of returning, plus the need to regain game condition were the most significant hurdles an injured player faces.
Calipari pointed out that he had experience coaching a team with a small rotation. His 1995-96 Final Four team at UMass had five players average 30-plus minutes: Edgar Padillo 36.5, Carmelo Travieso 35.8, Dana Dingle 32.5, Marcus Camby 30.6 and Donta Bright 30.5.
In SEC play, Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 36.2 minutes. Knox and Hamidou Diallo are averaging 29.4 and 29.0 minutes. PJ Washington averages 28.8 and Wenyen Gabriel 27.2.
Green, who missed the last two games, averaged 29.7 minutes in UK’s first three league games.
LaChance free throws
Vandy guard Riley LaChance had missed three free throws all season (24 of 27). Then he missed all four of his attempts against UK: the front end of a one-and-one with 5:36 left, then three with 30.6 seconds left and Vandy trailing by four.
Hard to believe for a senior who had played more than 3,500 minutes and made 85.8 percent of his free throws in his college career.
“That’s basketball ... ,” Drew said. “Obviously, we told him to keep confident. ‘We expect you to go out and make the next 30. You’re that good a shooter.’”
Going into Saturday’s play, five teams in Kentucky had a better RPI than Vandy’s No. 163: UK (No. 7), Louisville (24), Western Kentucky (43), Northern Kentucky (128) and Murray State (131).