Stepping up from the Bench

In order to provide fans with additional coverage for the 2016 postseason, CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com will be sharing stories throughout tournament play to help feed the never-ending appetite the Big Blue Nation has for all things Kentucky basketball.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When one player isn’t contributing or is making numerous mistakes, another will take his place. That’s how head coach John Calipari has always handled his rotation.

On Saturday against Georgia, Alex Poythress got into foul trouble early in the second half. A frustrated Calipari turned around, pointed down his bench, and in came Derek Willis to take Alex Poythress’ place.

“We don’t have you as a big man, we’ve got four of you,” Calipari said of his subbing. “And really, we even went to Isaac (Humphries) today to see if any of them will get going, and then we would have rode whoever. Next man up.”

After a mostly quiet first half, Willis stepped up for his team in the second half as he grabbed five big rebounds, scored nine points (six of them on free throws) and blocked four shots in place of Poythress. Willis finished the game with 14 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 25 minutes of play.

While Willis was not too happy with his first-half performance, especially on defense, he was pleased with what he was able to contribute to the team when his number was called.

“Yeah, that’s where I tried to compensate for when I was messing up,” Willis said of his rebounds and blocks. “I was like, ‘Well, I have to make some plays to get back and do something.’ Because offensively I think I hit a 3 at some point and just hit free throws honestly. I wasn’t really doing much, so I had to do something.”

But he wasn’t the only one that was called upon from the bench. Charles Matthews was subbed in for Isaiah Briscoe at different points in the game after Briscoe had mental lapses on defense. After a substitution in the first half, Matthews soared through the air and grabbed a huge defensive rebound, causing Calipari to celebrate wildly on the sideline.

“I was happy for Charles,” Calipari said. “He’s been struggling, and I’m trying to get him to understand the best version of him is unbelievable defender, sprint the court, slash for baskets, offensive rebound, rebound defensively, and fly. That’s the best version of him.”

While Matthews’ numbers (three rebounds, two steals and a block) don’t speak to the significant contribution he made, it was the energy he brought off the bench that made Coach Cal want to give his freshman guard a hug later.

“Coach gets me on at times when I don’t play with my full energy, play fully to my potential,” Matthews said. “I guess Coach was impressed with the energy I brought to the game today, so he wanted me to keep playing like that.”

Cats impressed by Georgia

When Kentucky is rolling on offense, few teams can keep up.

But there Georgia was, holding a lead on the team now rated No. 1 in the country in offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com.

“I felt like we were scoring the ball pretty well, and I kept looking at the score and we were down five, down eight, down 10, seven,” Tyler Ulis said. “They were just knocking down 3s. Tough shots, open shots, they had everything going for them.”

Taking a page out of John Calipari’s playbook from a season ago, Georgia shot its way to a double-digit first-half lead and a 49-44 halftime margin. The Bulldogs shot 61.3 percent and piled up points at a staggering rate of 1.44 per possession.

“Mark Fox had an unbelievable game plan of what they were going to do to beat us,” Coach Cal said. “He platooned. Think about what he did. He totally changed how they were going to play because he knew it was their third game in three days. They went right after us inside. They put us in pick-and-rolls with our fives and let their guards go.”

Kentucky, of course, would overcome the deficit in the second half en route to a 93-80 victory in an SEC Tournament semifinal, leading most bracket experts to conclude the Bulldogs would miss out on the Big Dance. The Cats, just having faced them, have other ideas.

“Georgia’s a good team,” Charles Matthews said. “They got so much better since the first time we played them. In my opinion, they’re definitely an NCAA Tournament team from what I saw.”

Calipari, in addition to seeing his team taken to the brink by the Bulldogs, studied Georgia closely in a five-game winning streak preceding Saturday’s semifinal. He spoke on the Bulldogs’ behalf as well.

“The team you just watched, the way they played -- now, they just won five games in a row,” Calipari said. “They won five straight games and had us beat most of the game. We had what we needed at the end to kind of win the game, but I just -- you know, they're an NCAA team.”

The same experts who have Georgia on the outside looking in have also cast doubt on Vanderbilt and South Carolina following their early SEC Tournament exits. He went to bat for them as well.

“Vanderbilt had a tough loss against Tennessee,” Calipari said. “We lost to Tennessee. There are other teams that had tough losses in tournament play. They lost. Well, that doesn't affect them. Well, it shouldn't affect Vanderbilt. South Carolina should be in. They held out their best player (Michael Carerra) for the (SEC Tournament).”

Lessons learned

If there’s one thing that conference tournaments do for teams, it’s that it teaches them what to expect come the NCAA Tournament.

UK is undoubtedly expecting to play in close and tough games in the next few weeks, and Saturday’s comeback win over Georgia provided an early preview of what’s to come.

“It can help us a lot, because tournament play is every game is going to be a war,” said Alex Poythress. “There are no more blowouts anymore. You’re not going to play any bad teams anymore. You have to get ready to battle every game. … It’s tournament time. People are fighting for their lives now.”

As the Wildcats watched Georgia shoot 61 percent from the field in the first half and hold a five-point lead at halftime, they were reminded of just how tough postseason games can be.

But by responding in the second half and completing the comeback victory, UK showed just how good it has become by the end of the season as well. And most importantly, by getting the win, the Cats were able fight another day while learning a valuable lesson, one they’ll no doubt need when March Madness officially begins.

“This is just how the tournament is going to be,” Willis said. “There is going to be days where you’re down 10, let’s see what you can do, and everything counts. I just think it’ll be a learning experience for us, it was a great learning experience for me. It just all around helps us.”

Blue gets in, again

Kentucky fans annually take over the arena for the SEC Tournament, but they make have reached a new (decibel) level on Saturday afternoon as the Wildcats made their game-breaking run.

The players noticed.

“With about six, seven minutes left, we were making our run and the fans were going crazy,” Ulis said. “We couldn’t even hear each other call the plays out. That’s the great thing about this fanbase. They travel anywhere we go. It’s like we were in Rupp.”