In the archive of Kentucky’s 2,100 victories, Thursday’s triumph at Vanderbilt will be filed under the “Wasn't Pretty But I’ll Take It” header.
So said UK coach John Calipari upon returning from Nashville and preparing for a quick turnaround Saturday afternoon against Texas A&M at Rupp Arena.
“Good road win. It’s our first road win,” Calipari said of the 60-58 win over the Commodores, knowing well that Kentucky has left Music City with a loss to Vanderbilt seven times since the 2000 season and has frequently felt the sting of “Memorial Magic” over the years.
“What I liked is the shot that Kyle (Wiltjer) made when he was just having a rough game,” Calipari added. “The shot that Ryan (Harrow) made, the 3-pointer. The shot that Julius (Mays) made; he was having a tough game and he still makes that one 3. The play that Archie (Goodwin) makes, which is a second- and third-effort play that we really needed the basket. The lob play (to Nerlens Noel). There were plays that we made to gut it out, but we just have to get better than we are.”
To be sure, it was also a game which saw the Wildcats blow a 16-point lead in the second half, give up an 18-0 run, get beaten 42-37 on the glass by a poor-rebounding Vanderbilt squad, and survive by the skin of their teeth after the Commodores’ 3-point shot at the buzzer barely missed the mark.
“We talked about plays down the stretch where guys were gritty,” said Calipari, accentuating the positive, “and then we showed them the offensive rebounding stuff that (Vanderbilt) did. And then we showed them our offensive rebounding, which had no effort, no attempt to go get balls. We just said it – has to change. You’re not going to win in this league giving up 20 offensive rebounds and then not attempting to offensive rebound.”
The Commodores shot only 33 percent from the field, but survived on second-chance points. They had 14 points via offensive rebounds.
Vanderbilt’s switch to a zone defense also rattled the Cats, who shot 58 percent in the first half and only 33 percent in the second half. Calipari warned that every SEC opponent moving forward will be studying that game film to prepare for the UK offense.
“The crazy thing is, I knew (VU coach Kevin Stallings) was playing zone, and we went all week working on zone,” Calipari said. “We worked on man-to-man 10 percent of the time. We worked on zone the whole time, and that’s what it looked like. I don’t know what we worked on, but it wasn’t the right thing.”
Kentucky improved to 10-4 on the season, but is still struggling to find its stride with a number of players not performing consistently. At Vanderbilt, sophomore forward Wiltjer was the primary subject of Calipari’s scrutiny after going 1-for-5 for only two points on the offensive end of the floor, but surrendering what the coach estimated as 20 of the Commodores’ 58 points due to his defensive breakdowns.
Wiltjer represents a dilemma for Calipari. He’s the team’s best perimeter shooter (33 of 78, 42 percent, from beyond the arc this season) something UK desperately needs when opponents go to the zone defense. But his physical limitations make it difficult to stay on the floor in Calipari’s demanding man-to-man defensive philosophy.
Asked if he’s considered going to more zone defense to camouflage Wiltjer’s issues, Calipari said his player would still be isolated.
“It’s hard,” he said. “Like any other coach, if I know there’s a mismatch out there, I’m going to go at him until that other coach takes him out of the game. That’s what a good coach does.
“So, now, if you want to stay on the court, you better figure it out. You better figure it out. What do you want to do? Do you want to come off the floor or do you want to play? And, what happens is that when they’re in that desperate mode, normally they’ll figure it out.”
Texas A&M (11-3, 1-0 SEC) features a three-guard offense led by Elston Turner, who is averaging 15.5 points per game. The Aggies also feature solid frontcourt play with forwards Courtney Roberson and Ray Turner, who combine to average 18 points and 12.9 rebounds per game.
“Very physical. Big. Strong," Calipari described A&M. "Their 3 man (Turner) is as good of a player as we have in our league. They push the ball. They play both man and zone. They try to jam pick-and-rolls. They’re a post-up kind of team, a la a little bit of Kansas, corner cuts and high-lows, screening from behind with big and big and trying to go from high to low.
"They’re going to go after our big people. That’s how they play. They’re a good team; they’re a really good team.”
The Aggies opened SEC play with a 69-51 win at Arkansas.