The 10th-ranked Wildcats are winning with a short bench, though at times fatigue has resulted in sloppy play.
For all their youthful energy, the core of Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson have shown signs of exhaustion. They have struggled to put teams away, even though Kentucky (16-4, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) has won four of its last five games heading into Tuesday’s contest with Mississippi (13-8, 1-5.
“I’m playing these guys so many minutes that they have lapses,” Calipari said.
It happened Saturday against Georgia. Kentucky led throughout in a 66-60 win, but let a 17-point lead get whittled to six.
Similar problems popped up in a road triumph at South Carolina, when the Gamecocks took advantage of some late Kentucky mistakes and turned what was a blowout into a tight game.
After Saturday’s game against the Bulldogs, freshman center Doron Lamb, lounging on a chair with ice bags on both of his knees, admitted he and his teammates were “probably a little tired” because “we always play six guys.”
Calipari acknowledges he is asking a lot. But his advice to the Wildcats is play through it, because it’s not going to change.
Kentucky’s top six players played 195 of a possible 200 minutes against the Bulldogs. Reserve center Eloy Vargas saw five minutes only because Jones ran into early foul trouble.
It’s a gameplan Calipari says he’s going to stick with, feeling the team doesn’t really have a choice if it wants to keep pace with Florida in the SEC East.
Though he’s tried working extensively with backups Vargas, Stacey Poole and Jon Hood in practice, Calipari didn’t feel comfortable enough to put them on the floor when it mattered against Georgia despite several late slip-ups by the starters.
Though Kentucky only turned it over nine times the entire game, the Wildcats gave it away five times in the final 5 minutes as they tried to protect a sizable lead. Tired legs also led to some struggles at the free-throw line, where they made just 16 of 25 shots.
Liggins said Kentucky is “making mental errors and silly mistakes. We just have to come together as a team and have that mental toughness it takes to win.”
Physical toughness would help. Kentucky answered Calipari’s challenge to be more aggressive, jumping on the Bulldogs in the first half. Yet the intensity waned as the lead grew, and when Kentucky tried to turn it back on, it didn’t exactly work. If Lamb hadn’t made a pair of jumpers midway through the second half to halt a Georgia surge, things could have gone differently.
Calipari is considering cutting down on the minutes for Miller, who came out blazing against the Bulldogs before hitting a rough patch in the second half.
“He has a spell in the game like ‘why would you revert? Why would you get pushed there?”’ Calipari said. “But I’m just pleased he’s moving in the right direction. It’s important for the team he be aggressive offensively.”
And energized at the end of games. Calipari has tasked Miller, Liggins and Harrellson, the team’s three upperclassmen, with carrying the load late in games instead of hoping one of the freshmen bails the Wildcats out.
“You must be the tough guys,” Calipari said he told the trio. “You’ve got to make the tough plays. You’re not missing a rebound, can’t be … and you’re making easy plays. And then all of a sudden, you make that big block, you get that big rebound, you dive on the floor and get the ball and make that charge.”
The Wildcats appeared to get over their road troubles at South Carolina, though their maturity will be tested this week with games at Mississippi and Florida.
Calipari said a few of his friends from Memphis will make the 90-minute drive south to watch him lead his new team out there. He believes this group of Wildcats can be as good as the group he left at Memphis two years ago.
If Kentucky puts together a full 40 minutes, Calipari isn’t sure there’s a team in the country that can beat the Wildcats.
Even if it leaves his players gassed at the end.
“We’ve just got to learn to fight through it,” Knight said. “We can’t let that be the reason we lose.”