Throughout Kentucky’s tumultuous 2020-21 season, various players have played the role of party pooper. It can change from game to game, but there’s almost guaranteed to be at least one stinker in each game. Rather than pile on, John Calipari is trying to coach his players through their roadblocks. It’s much easier said than done after a win, like tonight’s 82-78 victory over Vanderbilt.
The player that assumed the notorious role in Nashville was Devin Askew. Since the point guard committed five turnovers in a loss to Georgia, the freshman had seemingly turned a corner. He was not lighting up the stat sheet, which meant he also wasn’t filling up the turnover column. Over the past six games he had 24 assists to just nine turnovers. He turned it over four times in the final ten minutes of the first half against Vanderbilt, giving the Commodores just enough room to play their way back into the game.
“He had a couple plays today where did things where we told him, don’t do this, and he did it. It’s kind of like having a kid that’s gotta touch the fire every once in a while,” Calipari told Tom Leach in his postgame radio remarks.
Calipari is willing to play with fire to push his players and give them the most rewarding experience possible.
“He’s going to do that and I gotta live with it. But he’s becoming that leader. His face looks different. His body language looks different and that’s why I keep saying, ‘I gotta be about these kids.‘ These are 18-year-old kids going through this that came here to go to Kentucky to experience Kentucky, the fans, the games, the Rupp Arena being packed. They didn’t get any of that,” he said.
“All of the stuff they didn’t get to experience and that’s why my job — I’m with these kids. Do I shake my head? I got people, friends of mine, calling saying I can’t believe you’re not pulling your hair out. I could say, hey it’s all about them and they’re screwed. I’m not doing that. I’m going to do everything I can to coach this team.”
Calipari knows he is not the only one frustrated. For the second time in three days he thanked the fans for having the players’ backs despite the difficult circumstances.
“This is Kentucky’s team. Our fans have been great… I want to thank our fans. Yeah, there are fans that are going to be angry because of our record and they have a right to be mad and they have a right to have an opinion. I may not agree with it, but they have a right. And it doesn’t mean you talk down to me because you don’t agree with me. No. I have my opinion of what I need to do to help this team and what we’re trying to do. I’m just proud of them. We needed a win. We got it. They make a run. We could’ve folded. We didn’t, so we’re getting better.”
Calipari is playing with fire. Sometimes the head coach and the fans have been burnt. Luckily, tonight was not one of those nights at Memorial Gymnasium.