It was supposed to be happier times for Kentucky Wildcat Basketball this week, but alas, the ESPN College Gameday train is rolling through Lexington and you can not stop it. So instead of fretting about which Wildcats will show up or if they will continue to improve after Nerlens’s injury, it’s best to sit back and enjoy the ride. One thing for sure, there will be no shortage of storylines:
“It’s more unfortunate for Kentucky,” said Tom Engle, a producer of the GameDay hoop-a-palooza. ” … We’d love to see probably one of the marquee players in the country. To not have him on the court, it hurts us. But it hurts (Kentucky) a ton more.”
GameDay has plenty of potential subjects to discuss, beginning with the Kentucky-Missouri game (tip-off at 9 p.m.). Even the anterior cruciate ligament Noel tore at Florida last week can serve to stimulate conversation.
“It immediately creates story lines for us,” Engle said of the injury. “Who is going to be the next person to step up? What is (Noel’s) decision going to be down the road as far as coming back to Kentucky?”
Then there’s the incessant assessments of teams’ chances for an NCAA Tournament bid.
“I guess it opens up a lot more questions for us more than anything else,” the producer said.
Engle, who has produced the GameDay show for two seasons, could not recall another instance of a participating team losing its star player a week or two before the game.
First it was dodgeball on Tuesday night and now there are reports that wiffleball is on the schedule tonight? Whatever it takes, John Calipari is putting the fun back into Kentucky basketball. While everyone is focusing on the dodgeball part, Calipari also executed a better gameplan for his team without Noel in the lineup:
Calipari tried a few new things. He opened up the offense a bit, tried to increase the spacing a little. And the Wildcats did a good job of getting Cauley-Stein the ball in the post and just letting him work.
Ryan Harrow came to Calipari on Tuesday and asked if he’d let him start at point guard. Calipari liked Calipari’s eagerness, and he let him take the wheel. Harrow responded with 12 points and 4 assists in a turnover-free 32 minutes.
“Well, we opened up the court because, one, I thought we needed — we can beat people on the dribble, and if guys are next to the rim, you can’t. So we were bringing our five-man up. We are a good enough three-point shooting team — you’ve got to guard people. You’ve got to guard Alex (Poythress); you’ve got to guard Kyle (Wiltjer); you’ve got to guard Julius (Mays). You can’t just say, well, we’ll pack everybody in as you spread the court. You can’t do that, because we can make 3s.
“But it also gives Ryan room to move and get his confidence. So we opened up the court so he could get into some pick-and-rolls. And you know, he needs to play more confident, and he did today.”
Defensively, UK was a bit more aggressive. On pick-and-rolls, instead of daring people to come inside for blocked shots, the Wildcats jumped the driver with a weak-side defender looking to come up with steals.
Steals? UK has ranked in the bottom third in the country in turnovers forced for the past two years, mainly because they didn’t need turnovers, with so many blocked shots leading to transition. But UK may need a few more turnovers now, and while they didn’t get many — Vandy had only seven turnovers in the game and only one in the second half — the defense against the high pick and roll showed a new look.
“Defensively, we did some funky things,” Calipari said.
And through it all, John Calipari is going to be the one that is scrutinized the rest of the way. You can say that he is the college basketball coach that works without a net:
He is the most artful and daring tightrope walker in the trade, a pioneer of high-risk/high-reward/relentless-turnover recruiting who is so conspicuously Out There that he causes the Flying Wallendas to cringe.
When the University of Kentucky’s daredevil coach can find the right parts, not even Sheldon Cooper could assemble them more quickly. When the parts don’t quite fit, however, time constraints pose a huge hurdle. That’s the bargain Calipari accepts in building his teams around high-end “one-and-done” talent.
When it works, it is wondrous. But it’s not always going to work.