It was just before his team’s Thursday practice at Belmont University, and John Calipari was talking with a media throng when the Kentucky coach said something that might give his upcoming opponents pause.
“We’re walking into this tournament with a big team,” Calipari said.
He didn’t mean an overly tall team. Kentucky’s best player, the SEC’s Player of the Year, point guard Tyler Ulis, is but 5-foot-9. He didn’t mean a muscular team. Only senior forward Alex Poythress fits that description. He didn’t mean a bigger-than-life team. Kentucky is ranked No. 16 in the polls and is the No. 2 seed for this SEC Tournament.
What Calipari meant, as his Cats prepare to play Friday night at 7 EST at Bridgestone Arena, is that heading into the postseason, he has a team in full.
“What we have for the first time, and no one has talked about this is, I have a full team,” Calipari said.
A healthy team. Poythress has recovered from the minor knee surgery that cost him five games. Derek Willis is back from a badly sprained ankle that cost him three games. Dominique Hawkins is back from the ankle and leg injuries that caused him to miss games here and there.
“We haven’t had that all year,” Calipari said. “So we’re coming together at the right time of the year. We’re playing confidently.”
The team’s confidence may be just as important as its health. After squandering that 21-point lead and losing at Tennessee on Feb. 2, Kentucky went 7-2 the rest of the year. Take away the controversial technical foul near the end of overtime against Texas A&M and UK could have easily been 8-1 over its last nine games, the lone defeat coming at Vanderbilt.
Moreover, with freshman center Skal Labissiere suddenly finding his footing in the final week of the regular season, Kentucky appeared to be playing possibly its best basketball of the season.
That doesn’t guarantee Kentucky will walk off with the trophy come Sunday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena. In Calipari’s eyes, it won’t be calamity if the Cats do not.
“We know our season is not ending this weekend one way or another,” Calipari said.
And, as he has said in past years, Calipari repeated his stance that he is not a big fan of conference tournaments. Even when his teams have played well in them, it hasn’t helped their NCAA Tournament seed. It’s also three games in three days, something that doesn’t happen during the regular season.
“We’ll use it, I’m not — believe me, if we’re up 12, I’m not taking guys out,” he said. “We’ll play to win the game and we’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.”
If he does have to take guys out, be it for foul trouble or other reasons, he now knows he has players who can do the job. That was the silver lining in those injuries earlier in the year.
“It’s been the best thing because all of a sudden Isaac (Humphries) got a chance. Charles Matthews got a chance. Derek Willis got a chance. Marcus Lee got a chance. They all got their opportunities.”
With a deeper team, said Calipari, you can overcome obstacles. Foul trouble. Injuries. Bad play.
“When you’re playing five guys and two play bad, you just lost,” he said. “Last year’s team, we were so deep, three and four guys could play awful and you still had five to play with. So we’re a deep team, but again, our top five or six are going to play the most minutes, but the other guys now we know because of that, it’s kind of played well for us.”
So let’s play.
“This is for us to tighten up anything, to play with greatness, improve our seed or to solidify our seed possibly,” Calipari said. “That’s what this is about.”