LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — It doesn’t take much for Jarred Vanderbilt to make a difference when he’s on the court.
“His energy is incredible,” Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee said Friday. “He’s a guy who doesn’t need the ball to impact the game, and when he does have the ball in his hands, he can impact the game as well because he doesn’t need to shoot it and score it to impact it. He’s a great passer. He’s got a great feel for the game.”
Since making his debut against South Carolina on Jan. 16, the Kentucky freshman forward is averaging 3.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Vanderbilt, who missed the first 17 games because of a foot injury, scored six points in his debut against the Gamecocks but has tallied just 10 points in the past four encounters, including three in an 83-81 overtime win over Vanderbilt earlier this week.
“I think I’ve played good,” he said. “A lot of people want to look at the offense, but I can really care less about the offense right now. I’m just trying to do everything else I can to help my team win and just to be successful, because like I said, baskets will come. Just try to bring a spark off the bench and be an energy guy.”
Vanderbilt admitted it wasn’t easy to recover from his preseason injury.
“Everybody has their struggles. I’ve had a few struggles. Maybe not to this certain extent, but just another stone of adversity,” he said. “I feel like with me playing hard, that’ll just get me through it. Just play hard and, like I said, good things will happen when you play hard.”
Although Vanderbilt has struggled to get into a rhythm offensively, he’s giving the team a boost in other aspects of the game. Vanderbilt said he’s “just going hard” in an effort to become more consistent on the offensive end of the floor.
“Basically I think the only thing (it’s going to take is) just time (for) me (in) getting my rhythm back,” he said “After a couple games, I feel like the shots will eventually fall. But for now, I’m just trying to do some other things besides scoring because I feel like if you play hard good things will happen.”
Because of a late start, Barbee said the coaching staff is still trying to define a role for Vanderbilt.
"You don’t miss as much time as he missed and there not be some unfamiliar area between him, the team, us — the staff — trying to figure out his strengths and weaknesses and where we can plug him this far along in the season,” he said. “That’s just going to be a work in progress. Every game you see him getting more and more comfortable. The game is starting to really slow down for him. Those first couple of games, I think the game was going a million miles an hour for Jarred. When you watched him have the ball in his hands, he was flying.”
“He can defend, he can block shots, he’s shown he’s an elite rebounder — not just balls in his area but out of his area as well,” Barbee said. “He’s been a huge boost to the team here more than halfway through the season and we anticipate him continuing getting more comfortable and helping us even more.”
Coming off a highly-emotional win over West Virginia nearly a week ago, the Wildcats needed overtime to fend off Vanderbilt, escaping with an 83-81 win earlier this week to remaining in contention for a regular-season Southeastern Conference title.
Vanderbilt said the Wildcats learned a lesson in the comeback victory.
“Mainly (coach Calipari said) just not taking any opponent lightly,” he said. “We came off of a big win. Guys were pretty hyped about that win because they knew it was a big game. Basically just treat every game like that, like it’s a big game like it might be our last game of the season. The main thing was just that that’s our approach from now on.”
Barbee hopes the Wildcats can build on the past three victories going into Saturday’s game at Missouri and the Kentucky assistant coach likes the way the Wildcats are battling.
“We like the resilience of this team,” Barbee said. “They don’t hang their heads when they get down and they collectively fight together to get back in the game. Now we’ve got to figure out how we bottle that up and get us to start the game that way, but I think it was more – it had to do with styles of teams that we played as opposed to what this team’s not doing.”
Gametracker: Kentucky at Missouri, 2 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: CBS (Channel 27), 98.1 WBUL, Lexington.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.