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Interior play pushes No. 14 Kentucky past Vanderbilt

Jan 11, 2014, 6:13 PM EDT

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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.

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