EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a weekly column in which SEC Country will take Big Blue Nation behind the curtain for a peek at the pursuit of UK basketball’s ninth national championship.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — And now for the good news.
Part I of our two-part analysis of Kentucky basketball’s collapse at South Carolina on Tuesday night focused on the grizzly how of a 14-point lead dissolving into an 8-point loss to the Gamecocks. Part II is all about who gives us reason to believe these Wildcats can still make a deep run come March.
Let’s begin with Jarred Vanderbilt, an almost-hero for short-handed, foul-plagued Kentucky in his very first college game. The 6-foot-9 former McDonald’s All-American finally made it all the way back from his third left-foot injury in the last two years when he checked in with 13:08 to go in the first half.
The Cats trailed by seven and he managed to make things worse at first — a badly missed shot, turnover, two missed free throws and foul in the span of 77 seconds — before settling in and showing off the exact skill set head coach John Calipari has been describing — drooling over — for months. Vanderbilt played 14 minutes and delivered 6 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and a block.
“Told me prior to the game” he was going to play, Calipari said. “He’s trying to figure out what we’re doing. We really haven’t scrimmaged with him — we’ve done some half-court stuff — but I thought he was pretty good for the first time out.”
Better than good. Vanderbilt looked like a midseason addition who can transform the Wildcats.
He truly was a “point forward” on Tuesday, assuming that role for long stretches when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got into foul trouble. Vanderbilt flashed a tight handle, terrific passing and both the willingness and athleticism to crash the glass. More than once, he appeared to be playing on a trampoline.
“Jarred stepped up,” fellow freshman Kevin Knox said. “Jarred is a great ball handler, has a good feel for the game and good passing skills. It’s his first game back, so once he gets a feel for it and gets the plays down, he’ll be another great addition to the team.”
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin opened his remarks about the Wildcats’ secret weapon off the bench by asking, “Was he a McDonald’s kid? Yeah, that’s what I thought,” as if to say: What, did you think he’d stink?
But we really didn’t know for sure, right?
Was Vanderbilt going to be worth the wait for increasingly impatient UK fans? It had begun to feel like maybe this whole thing was going to be a big letdown — and his first few shaky moments no doubt had many screaming something to that affect at their televisions Tuesday — before the kid was suddenly everything we’d heard he would be.
“I think he’s real good, very talented,” Martin said. “You saw some of his abilities [Tuesday night] with those kind of mid-range floaters when you guard him with a little smaller guy. When you guard him big, he goes off the bounce. He’s going to be another great addition to their team.”
Vanderbilt gives the Cats six players 6-9 or taller and eight former 5-star recruits — as soon as the starting point guard comes back. Oh, right, Quade Green and his strained back. Kentucky played its third straight game without him and it showed at the end of each one of those games.
The Wildcats somehow still won against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt last week despite a rash of late turnovers and missed free throws that probably don’t happen if the starting point guard who makes good decisions and shoots 80 percent at the line is available.
“The guy I think they miss is Quade Green,” Martin said. “Watching them play with Quade and watching them play without him, it’s a different team — especially when they play a team that gets out and guards them. Because it puts too big a burden on [Gilgeous-Alexander] that he’s got to carry for too many minutes in the course of a game.”
Gilgeous-Alexander had played brilliantly in five of the previous six games, including Herculean 39-minute efforts against the Aggies and Commodores, but the poor guy seemed to collapse under the weight of carrying Kentucky on Tuesday. He had just 6 points and no assists to go with 6 turnovers.
As good as he has been, Gilgeous-Alexander will be even better when he gets some help.
At last check Monday, Green was “getting close” to returning. When he does, and as Vanderbilt becomes more and more comfortable and earns a bigger role, we’ll finally begin to see the Kentucky team Calipari expected to be coaching this season.
So while there were some serious problems for the Cats in Columbia, an optimist might point out that it was just a weird game, turned on its ear by 59 total fouls (most in an SEC game this season), that UK wasn’t ready to win with oddball lineups and without Green.
“We’ll bounce back,” Knox said. “This is a good game for us, good physical team [and] we’re going to see a lot more down the road. We’ll go from here and learn how to make winning plays. We just gotta stick together as a team and just listen to Coach and we’ll be fine.”