February may usually be the month where college basketball teams find their groove for a tournament run, but with the second month of the year now underway John Calipari still feels like he doesn’t know what his team is.
“Ryan (Harrow) was out early. Now Willie (Cauley-Stein) was out,” Calipari said. “We’re trying to get these guys to play up to their abilities. We’ve been in flux the whole year. We have not settled into, ‘OK, here’s who were are.’”
The Wildcats should be back at full strength Tuesday versus South Carolina after Cauley-Stein returned Saturday from a four-game absence following what UK called a minor procedure on his knee.
Willie Cauley-Stein (Photo by Jon Hale)
Cauley-Stein played just four minutes against the Aggies, but Calipari said the limited time was designed to let him ease back into the game and not place him in a pressure situation coming off the long layoff.
Cauley-Stein started the five games before his injury, but how he will fit into the lineup now remains to be seen.
“Kyle (Wiltjer) needs to play and Alex (Poythress) needs to play, so it will probably take minutes away from Ryan and probable some minutes away from Archie (Goodwin),” Calipari said. “If Alex and Kyle deserve to play more because of how they’re playing, well, then who’s not? You’ve got to take somebody else out.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to take 15 minutes from Nerlens (Noel).’ Ain’t happening.”
In the five games since Cauley-Stein’s injury, Wiltjer has averaged 15 points and 5.2 rebounds. Poythress has averaged 11.6 points and 8.4 rebounds.
Harrow, UK’s usually sure-handed point guard, has turned the ball over five times in two of his last five games. On Saturday, Calipari took issue with Goodwin’s defense versus Texas A&M star Elston Turner.
Calipari acknowledged Cauley-Stein will need to perform to show he is worthy of the minutes he had earned before the injury, but it’s clear the rotation is a work in progress at the moment.
With or without Cauley-Stein, what is UK’s identity?
“I don’t know,” Calipari said. “It’s still developing.”
A win versus South Carolina Tuesday would match the Wildcats’ season-long winning streak at four games. Coming off road wins at No. 16 Ole Miss and Texas A&M, players feel like they are in position to establish some positive momentum.
“Every SEC opponent is going to be tough,” Wiltjer said. “They’re going to come and battle, so we’ve got to just take one game at a time. That’s our key.”
“We’ve got a little streak going,” Poythress said. “We’re just playing hard, playing together. We’re just becoming a better team.”
The schedule appears to lighten up for UK with games against South Carolina, ranked No. 199 in the RPI, and Auburn, ranked 215 in the RPI, this week.
While the Cats are favored to head to No. 2 Florida with a five-game winning streak next week, they must be wary of what could be a crippling loss to their NCAA Tournament resume against either of the 2-6 SEC teams.
So far, UK has been able to work through its struggles while avoiding a loss to a team outside of the RPI top-100.
“We’re hanging on, and we’re not near our best,” Calipari said. “We’re hanging on, and this is what happens when you have a young team.”
Since Calipari thinks the team is still a work in progress, learning on the fly while avoiding bad losses will be key for the near future.
When Calipari and players do finally learn what kind of team they will be, he thinks there will be a large payoff in the end.
“That’s a great thing about the human race: when we figure out, ‘I can change my own attitude,’” he said. “And then we figured out, ‘Wow, if I change all my habits it changes who I am? Wow.’ Well, that’s how this goes.”
UK takes on South Carolina Tuesday at 9 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPNU. You can read more from Calipari’s news conference on the KyForward UK Sports Notebook Tumblr.