By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky basketball fans are perhaps more perplexed over what is going on with freshman Jarred Vanderbilt than any player I can remember.
He’s not played all season because of a preseason leg/ankle injury. He was not expected back until mid-January initially even though he did not require surgery. Several times coach John Calipari indicated Vanderbilt might be back sooner. Now recently he’s been saying he didn’t know when Vanderbilt would play until the player told him he was ready to play.
That’s led many fans to believing Vanderbilt is merely waiting for the NBA draft and will not play at UK all season. Many fans believe he’s healthy now and could play if he wanted.
Kentucky associate coach Kenny Payne said Monday that Calipari will never push a player into playing until he feels he’s physically ready and apparently Vanderbilt does not feels he ready.
I asked fans how they felt about what was going on with Vanderbilt — and I got a ton of responses.
Start with Scotty Harris of Williamsburg. He doesn’t think Vanderbilt will play this year — a sentiment that UK Radio Network pregame host Dave Baker also shared on air Monday unless Vanderbilt plays either tonight or against Florida Saturday.
“I am scared that there is a trend beginning at UK Basketball with Cal’s ‘players first’ philosophy. I believe that we as a university have a certain need to see these kids succeed. However, I believe the kids should want the university and the program to succeed as well,” Harris said. “I am a fan that believes we still need to win championships. I am not satisfied with Elite Eights.
“I also understand that there will be times that this will happen but don’t use a scholarship and set on the bench and use the university and the program as a springboard only for yourself. If you’ve been given an opportunity to be on the team and used all the assets the player receives for being there, then that player should get back out there and play if he is healthy enough to play and then he can move on if the NBA comes calling. But don’t just use the scholarship and sit as we can give that scholarship for a kid that will use it and get his/ her education while playing for the blue and wanting to play for the blue.
“We have to recruit the best. I know this, but you can recruit a kid that has talent and wants to play for your program.”
Linda Myers remembers what happen when Duke’s Harry Giles tried to play after being injured and looked unprepared.
“Cal will never affect kids and their draft stock but it affects our program. However, it’s about Kentucky’s program and fans, not individual needs and wants. For me, it is becoming what the kids dictate,” Myers said.
Ronald Isham thinks Vanderbilt might need to see a sports psychologist.
“Vanderbilt has a fear-inspired mental block on returning to competition, i.e. traumatophobia,” Isham said.
Michael Rhodes is more compassionate toward the player. He says Vanderbilt didn’t plan to get injured and miss games when he came to UK.
“If he is ready, only he knows. If cal wants to know if he is mentally ready, ask him. Don’t wait for the player to say. Vanderbilt is a great kid,” Rhodes said. “I honestly think its just a thing to wild up fans. I think Saturday is when he starts. If he doesn’t play then, he won’t play at all. Cal said he wanted him to play first at home. Don’t get the whole freak out.”
Ronnie Phelps believes the potential of millions of dollars in the NBA have influenced Vanderbilt.
“He does not won’t to screw it up. Can’t blame him. We need to put ourselves in his shoes. Just my opinion,” said Phelps.
“I believe he has the wrong people in his ear. It’s sad … kinda makes you feel used,” Jason Dunn said.
Jessica Jones has found some of Calipari’s comments about Vanderbilt “odd” and didn’t like them.
“As a recruit if I saw that I think I would be rubbed the wrong way. Jarred seems like a great kid, I’d love to see him play but I hope he does what’s right for him,” Jones said.
Karen Sprinkle trusts that Calipari has the best interests of players just as he always has.
“But it’s not a good look for Cal to be making these vague statements that just lead to more speculation though,” Sprinkle said.
Donnie Edwards doesn’t worry about what Calipari is saying. His worry is that Vanderbilt values the NBA over UK.
“If he is healthy and could play but chooses not to because of a NBA career, then that is being pretty disrespectful towards UK,” Edwards said. “I understand he has to think of himself and the millions he could earn, but not at the detriment of UK basketball.”
Several other fans told me they understood if Vanderbilt thought he could get first-round NBA money without playing, they had no problem with that. Some others suggested that after Hamidou Diallo did not play the second semester last season after transferring to UK and then almost opting for the NBA draft that athletics director Mitch Barnhart should tell Calipari enough is enough. However, with the injuries Vanderbilt has had the last three seasons, I can’t see him being a first-round pick if he does not play.
And remember the joy UK fans felt when Vanderbilt picked UK. The first time I saw him play as a junior I thought he was a perfect fit for Calipari’s system — and I still do.
Check out this tweet from the UK freshman on Dec. 23rd:
“One year ago today, I made one of the best decisions of my life in becoming a Wildcat!” Vanderbilt posted.
Richard Cheeks, a contributing writer for vaughtsviews.com, has a little different take o the Vanderbilt comments from Calipari.
“The better question is what is going on with coach Calipari relative to Vanderbilt, Green, and Wynyard. Remarks indicate a level of frustration that I have not seen from Cal very often, talk of going to five or six player rotation, of not remembering some players’ names …,” Cheek said.
I think Calipari is frustrated that his young team’s progress has perhaps been a bit slower than he expected and sometimes he might let them impact what he says. Or he may know exactly what he’s saying to simply motivate players.
Either way, count me as one who thinks Vanderbilt plays. If not tonight, then Saturday. I just hope when he does play, no one expects too much too soon. Remember he missed most of last season before returning for the postseason all-star games where he got hurt again. But I think he’ll be back this season. Better yet for UK fans, I think he’ll be back next year, too.