‘I didn’t know what to expect.’ Calipari’s short notice game plan hinders Alabama in 90-81 win


Kentucky Wildcats forward Jacob Toppin (0) drives the ball during the UK vs. Alabama mens basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 90-81. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Hunter Shelton

The stars aligned for Kentucky as they blew past Alabama 90-81 at Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon.  

Between coaching adjustments from John Calipari, lights-out shooting from Kellan Grady and a whole lot of heart from Jacob Toppin, the Wildcats solved a puzzle without two of its own biggest pieces.  

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Calipari said. “We had two days, and I apologize to everybody out there, I shut down practice to scouts and everybody, because we needed two days to get ready.”  

As camp went dark inside the Kentucky facilities, Calipari and his staff went into the lab, hoping to concoct a serum that would lead towards a victory against a ranked conference foe despite not having their starting backcourt in TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler.  

While the final product turned out to be a winner, at times it seems Calipari was concerned with his team was going to even operate.  

How the hell are we going to play? What do we do? Who are the subs? Do we sub?” 

Kentucky would sub, although it wasn’t very often.  

The five starters would all play at least 35 minutes on Saturday, with Oscar Tshiebwe of all playing the least of the starters.  

This meant 39 and 38 minutes respectively for bench players Toppin and Davion Mintz. Four bench players would play a combined nine minutes against the Tide.  

“I mean look, we had five guys play 35 or more minutes, and some guys didn’t start great and showed a lot of resilience and finished strong,” Kellan Grady said. “Being down two guards and having to adjust with like 36 hours of preparation and figuring out how we were going to play today, and you know we scored 90 points without our two primary lead guards, so just the resiliency.” 

For Grady, his season-high 25-point performance led to one of the more gratifying moments he has experienced during his brief time in Lexington.  

“In my experience in college, this was probably one of the most rewarding wins I’ve ever been a part of just knowing what we were up against,” he said. “Alabama just beat Arkansas, who just beat Auburn, so that was a huge win for them. We were down a couple guys, pivotal guys on our team who really make things go for us and we responded. So, like I said, I’m really proud of our team.” 

Calipari featured Grady in his short notice gameplan, using the Davidson transfer in multiple ways on both sides of the ball, beginning with him on the baseline.  

Over time, the combo guard was able to get free and find his shot, something he wasn’t able to do against Tennessee in the Cats’ last game.  

While Grady was pouring it in from downtown, Toppin made the most out of his starting opportunity, providing his usual high-energy playstyle in bulk.  

The junior knows his role well and feels like it has spread out amongst the entire team over the season. 

“I just love this team so much and everyone else feels the same way. We have a bond that no one’s going to break through anything,” he said. “We’re going to stick together. And I think that’s the big part about it. When we’re on the court together, we’re going to fight for each other because we all want to win. We all know what the end goal is and we’re all pushing for that end goal.” 

That end goal, being a National Championship, is beginning to loom in the background as the regular season nears its finale. The SEC Tournament is set to begin on March 9, less than three weeks away.  

Postseason play means one thing, March Madness is set to ensue.  

Calipari has made everyone well aware that he is putting all his eggs in the March basket, and if that means resting Washington and Wheeler for more regular season games, then so be it.  

“They may be out another couple games. I need them healthy before March. We don’t need them to play hurt. If we can’t win a game because they’re not there, then we don’t win the game,” he said. 

If there is any one coach in the country who’s the most focused on getting his group ready for the Big Dance, it’s Calipari. Regardless of health, the hall of famer is chuffed with his group.  

“I keep saying, I like my team. There are good teams out there, but I’m taking this one,” he said. “If this group chooses to play to win, we’ll have a chance.”  

Kentucky basketball pulled a rabbit out of the hat in Lexington on Saturday. For their next trick, the Wildcats will welcome LSU to Rupp Arena in hopes of exacting their 65-60 loss in Baton Rouge on Jan. 4.  

The magic is set to start at 9 p.m. EST on Wednesday, Feb. 23.