BOISE, Idaho — Jarred Vanderbilt has missed Kentucky’s last five games, spanning the entire SEC Tournament and the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, with a left ankle injury. But when the Wildcats beat Buffalo on Saturday to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16 in Atlanta next week, it kept alive the hope that he’ll suit up for UK again this season.
“I’m still day to day,” the 6-foot-9 freshman forward said, “but they’ve given me a better chance by winning. I’m proud of my guys. They extended my time a lot longer, so I really appreciate that.”
Vanderbilt missed the team’s first 17 games with a left foot injury, then returned in January and averaged 5.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 17 minutes in 14 games to close out the regular season. He injured his ankle in practice the Monday before the SEC Tournament.
The former McDonald’s All-American — whose rebound percentage would rank No. 1 nationally if he’d played enough to qualify — said Tuesday he is around 70 percent healthy and joked Saturday that he’s up to 71 percent now. Calipari has said he’s looking for no less than 95 percent before he’s comfortable playing Vanderbilt in a high-stakes, loser-goes-home game.
But it sure looked for a while against Buffalo like the Cats could use him. With 12 minutes to go, Kentucky led the 13th-seeded Bulls by just five points and big men Kevin Knox, PJ Washington, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Nick Richards were all in varying degrees of foul trouble and Vanderbilt wished he could help.
“I was thinking that since the first game,” he said. “But we managed to pull it out even with the foul trouble. We put our foot on the gas and extended the lead.”
Kentucky (26-10) won by 20 points, as it turned out, and improved to 5-0 without Vanderbilt since his latest injury. That doesn’t mean the Cats don’t want him back. Hardly.
“Jarred is a really special piece to our team and with Jarred we only get a lot better,” star point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said after torching Buffalo for 27 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. “I would love to see Jarred back on the floor.”
There was no dramatic Win One for the Vando speech before this weekend, but Gilgeous-Alexander doesn’t hate that idea.
“I guess you could start a little movement,” he said, grinning. “Ball for Jarred or something like that.”