NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Sitting at a table late Friday night following his team’s loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, Kentucky coach John Calipari made it clear: If his club is going to extend its season past next week, it needs to get healthy.
“We’ve got to get three or four good practices in with a full team. It’s going to be vital,” Calipari said. “It will be vital. We have to have them on the floor.”
The Wildcats (21-11) were near full strength — at least in terms of bodies available — in the 80-73 loss to the Commodores; senior guard Sahvir Wheeler was the only player unavailable. But that doesn’t mean UK was healthy. Freshman guard Cason Wallace returned from a one-game absence after a leg injury. Senior guard CJ Fredrick continues to fight a lingering rib injury.
Latest NCAA projections:Where will Wildcats land on Selection Sunday?
Back in the starting lineup, Wallace played 37 minutes. Afterward, he declined to offer much clarity about his injury, just noting he was “just trying to get back and be as healthy as I can be.” He dished out five assists, which led all players Friday. But he struggled offensively, scoring just seven points on 3-of-10 shooting (1 for 6 on 3s).
“That’s what happens when you’re trying to plug guys in at this time of the year,” said Calipari, referring to Wallace’s shooting woes.
Fredrick failed to score in 14 minutes on the court, missing the only shot he attempted. And his plus-minus rating (negative-11) was the worst on the team.
Senior guard Antonio Reeves had a team-high 22 points in the losing effort. Senior forwards Jacob Toppin (21 points, 11 rebounds) and Oscar Tshiebwe (19 points, 15 rebounds) both recorded double-doubles. No other Wildcat posted a double-digit point total, however, and UK didn’t score a single bench point.
The Commodores had a trio of double-figure scorers: Ezra Manjon (a game-high 25 on 8-of-11 shooting, 2 for 2 on 3s), Tyrin Lawrence (18) and Jordan Wright (18).
Through 32 games this season, Kentucky has had its entire roster cleared to play just 13 times.
Seven players have missed at least one game because of injury; of those, six have sat out multiple contests, with Wheeler (10 games) and Fredrick (seven) out most often.
Kentucky football:Mark Stoops on Devin Leary, o-line and injuries as Kentucky football returns to the field
“We’ve got some tough guys, a few guys banged up and dealing with injuries,” said freshman forward Chris Livingston, one of two Wildcats (along with Reeves) to appear in every game this season. “But we’re all just going to keep trying to power through, play with who we have available. Just press forward.”
Junior forward Lance Ware noted how often the Wildcats have won this season while shorthanded as a positive as they await their NCAA Tournament destination and opponent, which will be announced Sunday.
“We feel like we have enough people,” Ware said. “Healthy or not healthy, banged up or not banged up, we have a deep and a very talented group of guys, so we’re going to figure it out with the group that we have moving forward.”
Toppin said the lone silver lining from Kentucky’s early exit from the conference tournament is the additional time to reset mentally and physically.
“It’s part of basketball; it’s not just us,” he said. “Every team has had people who are battling injuries, who are out. So that’s an excuse that can go out the window. Right now we’re at a point in our season where, if you’re gonna play, you’re gonna play. If you wanna win, you’re gonna win. If you want to win, you’re going to fight.”
Calipari said the Wildcats will focus on rehabbing injuries and resting up the next few days before the NCAA Tournament. They will prepare for their first-round opponent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Given the constant shuffling of his rotation, Calipari said the coaching staff is “still teaching and still talking them through stuff” that, in a less injury laden campaign, would have been committed to players’ memories long ago.
More Kentucky football:Why new RB coach Jay Boulware was drawn to Mark Stoops’ staff
But time is running out. If Kentucky is to make a run late into March, it needs to be healthy and it needs continuity.
“I still believe in this team,” Calipari said. “I think this team can go on a deep run.”
Reach Kentucky men’s basketball and football reporter Ryan Black at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @RyanABlack.
Leave A Comment