Wildcats hoping to find deeper bench

Published Jan. 13, 2011 9:11 a.m. EST

AP Sports Writer
January 13, 2011

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- It was not, Stacey Poole admits, his finest moment.

The Kentucky freshman guard was in the middle of an intense drill with teammate Jon Hood recently when Poole could feel his pre-practice meal churning in his stomach.

Poole tried to ignore it, attempting to push himself through the discomfort. He knew coach John Calipari was watching, and for a little-used reserve desperately trying to earn more playing time, Poole didn't think he could afford to let up even for a second.


His churning insides begged to differ.

"I'd been feeling sick for the past couple days and I think I was choking on my own spit and I was trying to push myself so hard because I know I want to play," Poole said. "I ended up getting it out of my system. People were laughing and like, 'Oh, what's wrong with this kid?'"

Turns out nothing, really. And that's the problem.

While the 13th-ranked Wildcats (13-3, 1-1 SEC) have been able to survive a brutal nonconference schedule relying almost solely on a six-player rotation, Calipari knows that won't be good enough if his team is going to make a deep run in March.

Calipari needs players like Poole, Hood and junior center Eloy Vargas to make an impact. Sooner would be more preferable than later.

"My whole mindset is Stacey, Jon Hood and Eloy are going to help us before this season's over," Calipari said. "That's how I'm looking at it. I'm just going to keep working and pushing but I'm also going to be hard on them."

It's a lesson Calipari learned from dealing with center Josh Harrellson, who played sparingly last season behind higher profile teammates DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton.

Yet rather than ignore Harrellson, Calipari ended up turning him into a project. He ordered Harrellson into the gym early for a series of conditioning drills shortly after practice began this fall, turning him from an afterthought into a revelation.

Calipari is taking the same tack with Hood, Poole and Vargas. The results so far, however, have been mixed at best.

The trio along with freshman walk-on guard Jarrod Polson have scored 72 points this season, five percent of the team total. Blame it on a lack of opportunity. Only Vargas is averaging at least 10 minutes a game. At least he's playing. Poole is not. He's seen action in just 10 games this season, one behind Polson, a Kentucky native and Rupp Arena favorite who is developing cult status as the last guy off the bench.

It's not exactly the role Poole had in mind when he signed with the Wildcats. While he knew playing time would be hard to come by after Calipari landed high-profile guards Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb, he didn't expect weeks to go by where he wouldn't make his way to the scorer's table to check in.

"When you're not playing, it's a mental game behind the scenes, which is being in that gym and working hard, which is what I'm doing," Poole said.

In addition to the regiment Calipari has put together for his reserves, Poole said he's spending extra time alone in the team's practice facility hoisting shots by the hundreds.

"I just want to get something up, try to keep that confidence up," he said.

It hasn't always been easy. Calipari harps on "demonstrated performance" -- production when called upon in games -- as the only way to see the floor.

Poole has hit just one field goal all season, though it did come in a crucial spot in the first half of a win over Notre Dame last month. He knows that's not what Calipari is looking for when he puts him in the game but acknowledges there is a special kind of pressure that comes with knowing every move you make will be scrutinized.

"You want to make yourself look good," he said. "You want to go in there and play and have Coach Cal comment when you come out like, 'Dang, I need to put him in more often. I need him.'"

Calipari isn't quite willing to go there yet. He's more likely to pinpoint every little miscue in hopes of helping Poole, Hood and Vargas develop the mental toughness necessary to earn his trust.

"If you can't take me, how are you going to go on a high-level game that's on national television and make tough plays?" he said. "The guys that are like rattled and get petrified, how are you going to play in a high-level game? That's part of the reason why I got on guys."

Don't expect him to let up anytime soon. Hood doesn't. He's done his best to keep his head up, knowing the barbs he endures from his coach are designed to make him a better player.

"There's no doubt in my mind I'm good enough," he said. "I know I'm good enough to play here. I know I'm good enough to contribute."

For Kentucky to get where it wants to go, Hood and the guys sitting next to him on the bench might not have a choice.