ST. LOUIS (KT) — Kentucky likely will be without one of its top players to open the postseason.
Kentucky coach John Calipari confirmed Thursday freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt likely won’t play when the Wildcats take on Georgia Friday in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Bulldogs advanced following a 62-60 victory over Missouri Thursday.
“I doubt seriously that Jarred will play obviously if he’s still limping,” Calipari said. “I doubt (Friday) he will play. Hopefully, at one point he tries to see what he can do … I don’t think it’s (going to be Friday) … We’ll miss it. It will be harder to play without him.”
Vanderbilt has played in 14 games since his return from a foot injury in January and averaged 5.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game since making his debut against South Carolina in January. Although his scoring and rebounding gave the Wildcats a boost, his inspired play will be missed the most.
“What we have to do is make up for his energy,” Calipari said. “Someone got to come in (and give us some energy). It’s not one (player), let’s all pick it up five percent and we’ve got to pick up nine rebounds. So where are those nine going to come from? A couple of more from PJ (Washington), a couple from Wenyen (Gabriel), a couple from Kevin Knox. Guards, get a couple and Sacha and Nick together get a couple more than they’ve been getting.”
Calipari didn’t put a timetable on his return. Following the SEC Tournament this weekend, the Wildcats will compete in the NCAA Tournament next week.
“He’s got to make that decision,” Calipari said. “Last time it took time to do it, but it’s not going to be me making (the decision). It will be him and the doctors to make sure it will be OK.”
The absence of Vanderbilt will give Nick Richards and Sacha Killeya-Jones an opportunity to log more minutes and contribute but will alter the team’s look on the court.
“It gives Sacha and Nick a chance to play more,” Calipari said. “It gives us a chance to Wenyen (Gabriel) at the five (spot). It makes us a different kind of team.”
The Kentucky coach also said not having Vanderbilt will also hurt his team’s chemistry, especially when he was paired with Washington on the court.
“They played buddy basketball and they both knew where each other (where) and they created good opportunities for each other and we’re going to have to see if that can be Wenyen,” Calipari said. “How can we do this?”
Calipari will get a chance to see how his team responds against a determined Georgia team that has won two straight games in the tournament. The Bulldogs (18-14) lost to Kentucky 66-61 in the conference opener for both teams on Dec. 31 at Rupp Arena.
“We should have got beat and they had us beat,” Calipari said. “(Mark Fox) is doing a good job and it will be a hard game. These are all hard games.”
Calipari hasn’t been surprised by Georgia’s showing in the first two days of the tournament and said the team’s losses in the league, including two overtime setbacks, have been because of a dose of tough luck.
“They were the team that was playing the best toward the end of the year,” Calipari said. “They lost at home to Texas A&M in the last minute. They lost to Tennessee in the last minute (and) they should have won both games. They had good leads in both games. You saw what they did to Vandy and now what they did to Missouri and Missouri, they told me, had the building. It was a road game.”
Although not a fan of conference tournaments, Calipari hopes the event gives his team a chance to improve their seeding status in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re using this tournament to see how good we can be,” Calipari said. “We’re using this to prepare us for next year and we’re also using this tournament to see if we can improve our seed, which it never does. … This is our opportunity right now to do what we need to do.”
The bottom line Calipari said is how much progress the Wildcats can make in a short period of time.
“How good can we become as a team? Let’s do this game-by-game and let’s see if we can improve and get out mindset where it needs to be. … I like the frame of mind my kids are in, but you just don’t know when they’re young and this inexperienced.”
Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Georgia, 3:30 p.m., Friday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM WBUL, Lexington.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.