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Vanderbilt hopes to bring a boost of energy to the court for struggling Wildcats

Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt has scored 10 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in 27 minutes of action since making his debut in a 76-68 loss at South Carolina last week in Columbia. (UK Athletics Photo)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Jarred Vanderbilt wanted to be cautious when he decided to make his return to the court after sitting out the first 17 games of the season because of a foot injury.

“I just wanted to play it on the safe side,” Vanderbilt said Monday ahead of Kentucky’s contest against Mississippi State set for Tuesday night. “I didn’t want to rush back out there, go too fast, and it ends up happening again. So, I just wanted to play it safe, make sure I was ready to play physically, mentally and basically just make sure me, my parents and Cal were all on the same page.”

Vanderbilt made his debut in a 76-68 loss at South Carolina last week, the first of two straight setbacks for the Wildcats (14-5, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) last week that dropped Kentucky out the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time since 2014. The Wildcats had a had been ranked in the prestigious poll for the past 68 weeks. Vanderbilt scored four points and grabbed five rebounds in a 66-64 loss to league leader Florida last Saturday.

Kentucky coach John Calipari is hopeful the return of Vanderbilt will give his team a boost for the rest of the season and help the Wildcats regain their swagger after losing three of their past five games, two of which were on the road.

“He’s a little bit of a leader,” the Kentucky coach said. “But you can’t lead from the tub. You can’t. It’s hard to lead from the bench. You gotta be on the court. You’ve gotta be performing and then you’ve got that chance. So, he’s starting. He’s a great kid. He wants to make plays for his teammates.

Vanderbilt doesn’t feel any added pressure to make a difference for the struggling Wildcats. He added that he wants to be an “extra spark in the midseason” and provide more energy on and off the court.

“There’s no pressure, really, (I’m) just playing the game,” he said. “That’s how I’ve played my whole life. Just trying to bring what I can to the table, and really just enhance our team. Trying to start getting back to winning and playing Kentucky basketball.”

Freshman point guard Quade Green also made his return after missing the three previous games because of a back injury. Vanderbilt said having Green back will prove to be beneficial.

“Right now we just have to gain back our chemistry (and) just get a feel for each other,” he said. “(I’m) not saying it’s a new team, but it’s new additions right now. Like they said, they’re adjusting to me just as much as I’m adjusting to them as a team. So, I feel like that’s the biggest component for us right now.”

Vanderbilt said his foot is “getting better by the day (and) each week it’s progressing,” a positive sign for Calipari and his staff.

“The main thing right now is just me getting in shape, me trying to learn more about the offense, and basically try to fit in where I can,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter to me. Anywhere he wants me, one through five, I’m versatile, I can play multiple positions. Anywhere I can be to help the team be successful, that’s where I’m going to be.”

In his debut at South Carolina, Vanderbilt, known as a “point-forward,” showed his ability to handle point-guard duties and use his 6-foot-9 frame in the post. Vanderbilt said playing more in the backcourt than in the frontcourt was “surprising.”

“We didn’t much really plan it, just went with the flow,” he said. “Guys were in foul trouble, so I’m just glad I was able to step in and help the team while we were down at the moment.”

Vanderbilt admitted that he’s shown a glimpse of his abilities on the court, but expects his skill-level to increase as the season progresses.

“I think I’ve shown flashes — I mean, just a little bit of it right now in the limited minutes that I’ve had,” he said. “But I feel like as the season goes on, as I get in better shape, the more minutes I play, the more I’ll show.”

Gametracker: Mississippi State at Kentucky, 9 p.m., Tuesday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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