Interior play pushes No. 14 Kentucky past Vanderbilt

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Given how young No. 14 Kentucky is, with just one upperclassman (Jarrod Polson) part of the playing rotation, there were bound to be growing pains during non-conference play. And there are still some lessons to be learned by this group as the move deeper into SEC play with an eye towards the NCAA tournament. Saturday’s 71-62 win at Vanderbilt likely provided another lesson, one that focuses on where the Wildcats need to get the ball if they’re to be at their best offensively.

On an afternoon that saw the Wildcats shoot 6-for-22 from beyond the arc, Kentucky won due to their work in the paint and on the offensive glass. With Andrew Harrison (four offensive rebounds) and Julius Randle (six; all in the first half) combining to grab ten of Kentucky’s 18 offensive rebounds, the Wildcats corralled nearly 44% of their missed shots. And while they only scored 15 second chance points the impact of those extra opportunities can add up for a team if they lack depth as Vanderbilt does.

Add in 36 points in the paint and 12 more free throw attempts, and Kentucky was able to win despite shooting poorly from beyond the arc and the foul line (13-for-22). With Randle, a center in Willie Cauley-Stein (15 points, six rebounds) who seems to improve by the game and a forward in Alex Poythress (nine points) who played with an intensity that he struggled to produce earlier this season in the front court, the Wildcats can be a very difficult team to slow down in the painted area. And that’s before mentioning the penetration ability of the Harrison twins and James Young.

But they can only take advantage of this if they become “greedier” offensively. By that I don’t mean guys going for theirs at the expense of their teammates, but rather being attack-minded and not settling for perimeter jumpers. That was still an issue at times on Saturday, and for a team that entered the game shooting just 29.8% from beyond the arc it may be best to limit those shots despite the presence of players who have the ability to make three-pointers. Why? Because they’re much tougher to slow down when aggressive looking to get into the middle of the floor by way of the pass or dribble penetration.

It should also be noted that there were also stretches in which Kentucky did a better job of not simply taking what was dictated to them offensively, and their three primary perimeter options (the Harrison twins and Young) combined for ten assists to just three turnovers. Already among the nation’s best when it comes to hitting the offensive glass, there’s still room for Kentucky to grow on that end of the floor. And if they can take those steps, the Wildcats will improve their chances of winding up where many projected them to before the season began.

Illinois’ injury woes continue as starting center needs knee surgery

George Niang,Abdel Nader,Mike Thorne, Jr.
AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser
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Illinois suffered another blow in what has already turned out to be a brutal season.

Mike Thorne is expected to miss the rest of the season after tearing his meniscus. He reportedly underwent surgery on Monday to repair the injury.

Thorne, a transfer from Charlotte, was starting at center for the Illini and doing a good job of it as well. He was averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 boards, although Illinois has started off the season 3-4.

The reason for that slow start has mainly been those injuries. Tracy Abrams is already out for the season after tearing his achilles, and the Illini training room looked like a M.A.S.H. unit. Kendrick Nunn just returned two games ago from surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament. LeRon Black is still getting back to speed after offseason knee surgery. Jaylon Tate is back after dislocating a finger. Jalen Coleman-Lands was slowed by a stress fracture.

John Groce entered this season on the hot seat, and dealing with all of these injuries certainly isn’t helping his cause.

NEW PODCAST: Recapping Feast Week

Kris Dunn
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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We talk about a lot of stuff of the podcast today, mainly because a lot of stuff happened since we last spoke with you all.

For starters, we need to discuss the ‘realness’ of Syracuse and Xavier. Are they both truly top 15 teams, or do they just have top 15 resumes? We also dive into Chris Mack’s epic troll-job of Dayton at the Advocare Invitational final.

Other topics we touched on: Whether or not Scott is ever going to apologize to Wayne Selden, Wichita State’s tournament hopes, Texas A&M and whether we’d take Ben Simmons, Kris Dunn or Denzel Valentine today.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes right here. It’s the quickest way to get access on your cell phone or tablet.