What will it take for Kentucky basketball to become empowered?
As a precaution, Saturday night’s Kentucky-Vanderbilt game should remind fans with weak stomachs to take their anti-nausea medicine. Because youth will be served.
Youthful impulse (served with a side of inattention to game plans) could be all over the menu, er, Rupp Arena floor. Ken Pomeroy’s rating of No. 304 in terms of experience makes Vandy the greybeard in the game. He has Kentucky rated No. 350
PJ Washington, a relative old-timer as a sophomore, put into perspective the “process” that UK coaches talk about each year, about meshing a group of heralded recruits into an effective team.
“As young players coming to a school like this, you only think of yourself and what you can do in the future,” he said Friday. “But you’ve got to think about everybody else because everybody else has the same goals as you. And everybody else is going through everything you’re going through.
“You’ve got to come out as one, and everything elevates from there.”
To put it mildly, UK’s victory over Texas A&M on Tuesday was not uplifting. Afterward, UK Coach John Calipari offered a list of laments. A player not doing his job in a play called moments earlier during a timeout. Players going under screens, thus giving a three-point shooter the comfort to launch.
Maybe most damning, Calipari said he saw UK players thinking it was all right to be outworked by an opponent. “Like ‘What’s the big deal?’” he said in his postgame news conference. “‘You know who I am?’
“We’re breaking down execution right now and it’s driving me crazy. . . . That’s the kind of stuff that we’ve got to clean up, and it’s just not acceptable if we are going to be any good.”
A reporter asked assistant coach Joel Justus, who substituted for Calipari at Friday’s news conference, if youthful indiscretion explained UK’s stumbles.
“I think a ton of it is youth,” Justus said.
Vanderbilt 9-5 overall and 0-2 in the Southeastern Conference, strains under the weight of similar tonnage.
“The eight-minute mark was again our Achilles heel,” Coach Bryce Drew said of the 82-63 loss at Georgia on Wednesday. “Couldn’t make shots. Couldn’t get stops. . . .
“Obviously, we’re in a hole we didn’t want to be in, but it’s reality now. And how are we going to respond?”
Georgia marked the first “true” road game for four of Vandy’s starters. “Both offensively and defensively, we’ve got a lot to improve on,” transfer Yanni Wetzell said. “The ball stuck too much . . . There was too much one-on-one, and we need to move the ball, find the open man, drive to the basket and kick out more.”
Joe Toye, the lone senior on Vanderbilt’s team, said the 0-2 SEC record (average margin of defeat 14.5 points) should not be a surprise.
“We’re a young team,” he said Thursday. “It’s almost expected that we’re going to have tough spots early in conference play. I think we’re going to be able to pick it up pretty soon . . . And we’re going to need to get a win at Rupp.”
Toye and Wetzell spoke of being keyed up to play at Kentucky. Each recalled the Commodores’ heart-breaking loss at Kentucky last season: a needless foul 80 feet from the basket in the final seconds of regulation allowed UK to make free throws to send the game into overtime. The Cats won 83-81.
“Definitely, last year we should have won that game,” said Wetzell, who drove to Lexington to watch the game.
The pain from that loss lingers.
“We’re frustrated from that loss last year, and we dwelled on that for a while,” Wetzell said. “So I’m looking forward to turning that around.”
Toye spoke of winning at Kentucky as a goal, so Saturday’s game represents one last chance.
That’s one more lesson for UK players to learn: It’s not all right to be outworked.
“We’ve had to have some conversations about that, about who we’re playing and how important it is to everybody else,” Justus said. “It has to become that important to us every single possession, not just at the end of the day.”
Washington spoke optimistically about where Kentucky is and where it’s headed on this season’s learning curve.
“Tomorrow’s game is a big stepping stone for us,” he said. “We’ve got to come out and play 40 minutes. That’s the biggest thing we haven’t done all season.”
Vanderbilt at No. 18 Kentucky
When: 8:30 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Vanderbilt 9-5 (0-1 SEC), Kentucky 11-3 (1-1)
Series: Kentucky leads 145-47
Last meeting: Kentucky won 83-81 in overtime on Jan. 30, 2018, in Lexington.