ATLANTA – For once in his life, Kentucky guard Doron Lamb was scared to take a big shot.
Under the circumstances, who could blame him?
Lamb had vowed to play in Sunday’s SEC tourney championship game even as reports suggested otherwise after he injured his left ankle in the final minutes of a 72-58 semifinal rout of Alabama. Lamb, a freshman guard, struggled through an agonizing evening in which he got only a few hours of sleep.
He felt good enough Sunday morning to help Kentucky win its 27th SEC tournament title with a dominating 70-54 victory over Florida at the Georgia Dome. But after Lamb had his ankle taped to get ready for the game, he received one final instruction.
“The doctor grabbed me and said I’ve got to take a needle, so I put my arm out for the needle,” said Lamb, who led Kentucky in scoring for its first two tournament games. “Then he said, ‘No, you’ve got to turn around. You’ve got to take the needle in your butt.’ I said, ‘I ain’t doing that.’ He said, ‘Well, you need to do that to play.’ ”
Lamb submitted to the pain-killing injection only after his teammates agreed to distract him from the pain by screaming and telling jokes. Although DeAndre Liggins replaced him in the starting lineup, Lamb scored six points in 23 minutes of the bench.
“He made me hold his hand,” Kentucky forward Terrence Jones quipped after the game. “Especially since I’m his roommate, I did it for him. He was nervous.”
All the pregame discussion about Lamb underscored the issue that could keep Kentucky from making a serious Final Four run even as this freshman-dominated team matures into a legitimate contender. The Wildcats (25-8) don’t have much depth.
Kentucky has only six players (Lamb, Jones, Liggins, freshman guard Brandon Knight and junior guard Darius Miller) averaging as many as nine minutes per game. By contrast, Kentucky had nine guys playing at least 11 minutes per game last season.
That Lamb was still on the floor in the final minutes of a one-sided semifinal victory Saturday indicated coach John Calipari’s lack of faith in his bench.
Not that it necessarily matters.
Florida’s 2006 and ’07 national championship teams showed that balance throughout a starting lineup can compensate for a lack of depth. Only seven guys on each of those teams received substantial playing time, but all five starters averaged in double figures.
Kentucky has similar balance. No UK player scored as many as 20 points in any of its three tournament games, but at least four Wildcats reached double figures in each of them. Knight and Jones are Kentucky’s biggest stars and leading scorers, but the Wildcats won their 27th SEC tournament title without either player having a breakout game.
“I don’t think [depth] has any factor on it,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I think it’s more about matchups than anything else. That’s really what it comes down to, in my opinion. The media timeouts are so long. … There’s plenty of time for those guys. I don’t see that being a factor for them.”
The Wildcats tend to agree. After winning three games in three days, they believe they have enough firepower to withstand the grind of the NCAA tournament.
“We never didn’t have confidence in our depth,” said Miller, named the SEC tournament’s most valuable player after scoring 15 points against the Gators. “We feel comfortable playing the way we play. We feel we have enough. If we stay well-rested, we’ll be fine. We never thought that was a big factor coming in.”
Kentucky also now has reason to feel a little better about its bench.
Liggins showed he was up to the challenge of stepping into a starting role if necessary by scoring 10 points against Florida. Kentucky also got valuable minutes from forward Eloy Vargas, a Florida transfer who scored two points and pulled down three offensive rebounds against his former team. Vargas’ numbers won’t jump out to anyone glancing at the box score, but his contributions drew a standing ovation from a partisan crowd eager to see more from Kentucky’s reserves.
“How about Eloy Vargas today?” Calipari said. “What a great story that is. He just played so well and gave Josh [Harrellson] a chance to get a breather.”
Kentucky likely will need that kind of contribution from Vargas or someone else buried on the bench at some point in the NCAA tournament.
“Right now, I’m trusting Eloy and [sophomore guard] Jon Hood,” Jones said. “Eloy came in today and did a lot of good stuff for us, so I’ll say right now I think the lineup’s going to open up. It could become seven or eight [deep] probably.”
If that happens, Kentucky might stay in the tournament long enough for Lamb to take many more of the types of shots that don’t require a needle.