UK coach John Calipari said he’s not sure what to expect from his No. 1 Wildcats (10-0) when they play host to No. 21 North Carolina (6-2) on Saturday at Rupp Arena minus a “beast” who could “do things that other players cannot do.”
“We don’t know yet,” Calipari added when asked how the injury will affect the Cats. “We have to play games. We’ll see.”
The two biggest questions for now appear to be: Does Calipari stay with his platoon rotation? And, if so, who takes Poythress’ spot on the first unit? Will it be freshman Trey Lyles? Or freshman wing Devin Booker? A smaller lineup with defensive-minded sophomore guard Dominique Hawkins? Maybe sophomore swingman Derek Willis?
All too early to tell, Calipari said prior to Friday’s practice.
“I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t spend any time thinking team last night,” the UK boss said. “And this morning I met with some of the guys to talk things through. So we will figure out what (we have to do). We haven’t practiced yet so I don’t really know.”
It’s the second time that Calipari has dealt with a major injury to one of his players during his six years in Lexington. Two years ago, freshman center Nerlens Noel sustained a major knee injury when he landed awkwardly against a basket support in a game at Florida.
Kentucky was never able to recover from that setback. The Cats lost six of their last 10 games without the shot-blocking future NBA lottery pick, missed the NCAA Tournament, and lost to Robert Morris in the opening round of the NIT.
“Things like this can bring people together or it can break people apart,” Calipari said. “But you have to be more responsible and you have to add a little more to your game. When Nerlens went down we didn’t have that mentality, that makeup. We weren’t able to do it. We are going to find out if this team has the ability to do it.”
The loss has taken an emotional toll on the Cats already.
“Guys cried,” Calipari said. “I talked to them. You had guys that cried. It was devastating. They know, even in their own mind, ‘What if that was me? What if I had to deal with that?’ These kids get so close.”
“He was very emotional,” sophomore center Dakari Johnson said. “Everybody was emotional at that time. We didn’t know what to say. We just tried to pick his spirits up. He’s going to be good no matter what. That’s what we tried to really tell him.”
Willie Cauley-Stein, who came to UK in the same signing class with Poythress in 2012, can relate to his colleague. The junior center missed the final four games of the Cats’ NCAA Tournament run last season after suffering a severe ankle injury.
“It’s tough to see your brother – we’ve been through a lot together – go down with a freak injury like that,” Cauley-Stein said. “… I know, for me, I understand how he’s feeling. You get hurt like that, it feels like everything’s just coming down on you, especially in basketball (where) you’ve got stuff you’re trying to accomplish here, not only me and him together, but us as a whole team… Not knowing what’s going to come next is the worst part.”