NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — John Calipari remembers being down to seven scholarship players himself last season at Kentucky, so he isn’t in the mood to hear about Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings’ woes right now.
“I could care less,” Calipari said. “Do you know, everybody felt sorry for us when we had seven.”
Well, not really because Calipari’s Wildcats were coming off their eighth national championship as they struggled through injuries and other issues last season. Vanderbilt helped send Kentucky off to the National Invitation Tournament by beating the Wildcats 54-48 in the Southeastern Conference tournament last March.
Now Calipari and his 14th-ranked Wildcats (11-3, 1-0) are reloaded with another top recruiting class, and they visit Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon with the Commodores down to seven scholarship players after point guard Eric McClellan, their leading scorer, was suspended for the spring semester for an academic violation.
“My job is to make the most out of what we have,” Stallings said Thursday.
Stallings lost four players last summer with the biggest hit the suspension of leading scorer Kedren Johnson from school for the year. Then center Josh Henderson hurt his knee in his seventh game, and McClellan’s suspension came when he didn’t enroll for the spring semester.
McClellan averaged 14.3 points through the first 12 games. He didn’t travel with Vanderbilt (8-5, 0-1) to Tuesday night’s 68-63 loss at Alabama, and Vanderbilt announced the suspension Wednesday. Stallings dismissed McClellan from the team Friday, saying only that new information was learned Wednesday night. The coach said Thursday teams have setbacks and injuries.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had more than our share here in the last several months,” Stallings said. “Again, it’s not going to stop us from continuing to try to do what we want to do.”
Stallings has some flexibility with the players he still has, and senior Rod Odom is coming off his first career double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds. They also have freshman center Damian Jones averaging 10.7 points replacing Henderson. Odom said the key for the Commodores is avoiding mistakes and foul trouble.
“Everybody got to step up and do a little bit more,” Odom said. “Nobody got to put on a super hero cape.”
Calipari has eight freshmen alone this season, including nearly as many McDonald’s All-Americans (six) as Vandy has players on scholarship. Calipari said he will talk to his Wildcats about how the benches at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym sit on the end lines instead of the side as Kentucky comes off an 85-63 win over Mississippi State on Wednesday night to open league play.
“The reality is, the game is going to start, that team is going to be inspired to play us at home on national television,” Calipari said. “Are you inspired to play them? Or does it not really matter to you?”
Sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein, the only Kentucky starter not a freshman, said Memorial Gym is just something a player has to experience. He said it’s not hard to shoot at Memorial aside from the weird setup. Not being able to hear Calipari at times also isn’t a problem.
“It’s going to be loud in there,” Cauley-Stein said. “It’s definitely a gym that you’ve got to communicate in because you can’t hear anything because your coach is too far away from you. You’ve really got to relay calls and stuff.”