Just when Kentucky Coach John Calipari appeared to have finally settled on a consistent, productive rotation, his apple cart has been upset again.
And again the uncertainty revolves around Jarred Vanderbilt, the energetic freshman forward who suffered an unspecified injury this week and whose status for the Cats’ SEC Tournament opener on Friday is up in the air.
“I doubt seriously that Jarred will play,” said Calipari on Thursday night before confirming that it is an ankle injury. “I don’t see it. He’s still limping.”
This is not the way you want to start March, though technically Kentucky’s month was already off to a rough start thanks to that 80-67 thumping at Florida last Saturday, a loss that abruptly halted UK’s four-game win streak.
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And Vanderbilt had much to do with that string of success. After a preseason foot injury postponed his collegiate debut until Jan. 16, the Houston native started to hit his stride over the final two weeks of the regular season.
The 6-foot-9 forward isn’t much of a scorer, but he’s proven relentless on the glass. Despite playing limited minutes, Vanderbilt collected double-digit rebounds in five of his 14 games, including a double-double of 11 points and 15 rebounds in UK’s 21-point win over Missouri on Feb. 24.
That prompted Calipari to use a rotation of Vanderbilt, PJ Washington and Quade Green coming off the bench to join starters Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The recipe worked.
In fact, Kentucky’s troubles at Florida began when Washington and Vanderbilt picked up two early fouls, sending both to the bench and forcing Calipari to mix and match personnel groups. Nothing worked. By halftime, Florida led 48-33.
Vanderbilt’s father told the Herald-Leader’s Ben Roberts that his son’s injury was not thought to be serious and had nothing to do with the foot issues that caused problems even before he arrived at UK. Even if Vanderbilt doesn’t play this weekend at the Scottrade Center, there has been nothing to suggest he would also miss the Big Dance.
“Hopefully at some point, he tries to see what he can do,” Calipari said. “He’s got to make that decision. Last time, he took time to do it. But it’s not going to be me making, it’s going to be him and his doctors to make sure he’d be OK.”
Still, the timing is far from ideal. These young Cats need more time together as a unit, not less. Incorporating Vanderbilt back into the mix at win-or-go-home time is surely not what Calipari had in mind.
Ask Missouri. After playing just two minutes early in the season before injuring his back, the Tigers’ ballyhooed Michael Porter Jr. returned Thursday. He missed eight of his 10 first-half shots as Missouri lost 62-60 to Georgia. UK plays Georgia on Friday.
“It’ll give Nick (Richards) and Sacha (Killeya-Jones) a chance to play more,” Calipari said of Vanderbilt’s absence. “It gives us a chance to put Wenyen (Gabriel) at five, which makes us a different kind of team. What we have to do is make up for his energy. Someone has got to come in, and it’s not one, it’s let’s all pick it up 5 percent.
“We’ve got to pick up nine rebounds. So where are we are going to get those nine? Those nine need to come, a couple from PJ, a couple from Wenyen, a couple of from Kevin Knox. Guards get a couple. Sacha, you and Nick get a couple more than you’ve been getting.”
Think that’s called a collective effort. A team effort.
“But he’s also active,” Calipari said of Vanderbilt. “We’ll miss him. It’ll be harder to play without him.”
Then again, this hasn’t been an easy Kentucky basketball season, not with all the youth and the ups and downs. Though he’s not a fan of the conference tournaments, Calipari said Thursday the SEC is a chance for his team to get better. To do that, it will have to adjust.