BOISE, Idaho — Jarred Vanderbilt spoke to the media Wednesday for the first time since injuring his left ankle and sitting out the entire SEC Tournament last week. Like his coach earlier in the week, the freshman forward painted a bleak picture of the chances he’ll play in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m trying to get it better. I want to play, but right now I’m not 100 percent [so] it’s probably unlikely,” he said. But might he play if the fifth-seeded Wildcats (24-10) advance to the second weekend? “Absolutely. Right now I’m probably like 70 [percent] or something, but hopefully after a couple weekends we can work toward getting back to 100. But yeah, I hope my guys win. I want to play, so hopefully we get past this weekend.”
Vanderbilt, a 6-foot-9 McDonald’s All-American, missed Kentucky’s first 17 games after injuring his left foot — the same one he hurt twice in high school — on the eve of the team’s first preseason practice back in September. He made his college debut on Jan. 16, played the next 14 games without incident, and became the Wildcats’ best rebounder.
He averaged 5.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in just 17 minutes per game off the bench. Vanderbilt averaged 18.5 rebounds per 40 minutes and his offensive and total rebound percentages both would’ve ranked No. 1 nationally if he’d played enough to qualify. But then he sprained his left ankle during a drill last Monday and missed all three of UK’s league tournament games in St. Louis.
“Just a freak accident, came down in practice, and it was just unfortunate,” said Vanderbilt, who added that he’s mostly just icing the ankle — which did not appear swollen and wasn’t wrapped in the team’s locker room Wednesday before practice — and staying off it. He’s walking fine but not trying to run much.
Calipari said this week he doubts Vanderbilt will play the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament — which would be a huge loss should the Wildcats face Arizona and star big man Deandre Ayton in the Round of 32 on Saturday — and would be a “maybe” if UK reaches the Sweet 16 next week in Atlanta.
Although Kentucky rolled to the SEC Tournament title without Vanderbilt last week, it was outrebounded in all three games. The Cats had outrebounded seven consecutive opponents before Vanderbilt got hurt again. Ayton, the likely No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, ranks seventh nationally with a rebounding percentage (estimated percentage of available rebounds he grabs while on the court) of 21.4.
Vanderbilt’s rebound percentage is 25.6, meaning UK could really use him in that matchup.
“It’s definitely difficult for me just sitting on the sideline,” he said. “I want to play. Especially being a competitor, I want to go out there and play against the best. But I feel like our guys have stepped in my absence and I feel like they can hold the fort down.”
As for the future, Vanderbilt deflected questions about whether his decision to play the rest of this season is impacted by fear of damaging his NBA draft stock. One draft analyst told SEC Country this week that Vanderbilt, whose offense is very much still a work in progress, would be a second-round pick if he came out this year and thus should return to Kentucky for a sophomore season.
“I’m mainly just focused on this season,” Vanderbilt said Wednesday, “waiting for this season to end. Just focused on this team right now, this year.”
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