After four games of the Kentucky men’s basketball season, surprises were few. Record anyway. The Wildcats are 3-1, with their loss to Michigan State in the annual Champions Classic toss-up game. (Other years the opponent is either Duke or Kansas).
With the No. 4 on their brains – note that the UK is also 4th in recent USA Today Coaches and Associated Press polls – here’s a look at a quartet of issues (three positive areas and one area of concern) surrounding the team Heading to Sunday’s game at No. 2 Gonzaga, which announces at 7:30 p.m. and will air nationally on ESPN.
Newcomer Cason Wallace even better than announced…
Wallace, a freshman from Dallas, is the latest in a long, long line of five-star guards signed by Kentucky’s John Calipari during his Hall of Fame coaching career. While many of these freshman stars were more comfortable offensively when they arrived in college, it’s Wallace’s defense that sets him apart.
His 13 steals lead the SEC and rank fourth in Division I. Even if he doesn’t take the ball away from the other team, his long, lean stature and quick feet make him a problem for opposing guards.
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However, that should not neglect his offensive repertoire.
He averages 12.3 points per game (fourth best on the team as Oscar Tshiebwe, CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves all have a 14.0 point per game tie) and has netted more field goals (20) than any other wildcat. He was efficient in this area as well, connecting on 58.8% of his shots (20 out of 34). His 21 assists trail only Sahvir Wheeler, who has led the SEC in that category for two straight years.
Perhaps most impressive was his willingness and skill on the boards. He has 18 rebounds in four games — by far the most among Kentucky guards. (It doubles the second-best total; Wheeler and colleague Adou Thiero each have nine.) Recall that Wallace nearly hit a triple-double in his collegiate debut and had a line of 15 points, eight rebounds and nine assists against Howard scored
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Does he still need to polish certain areas of his game?
He is the best on the team with 11 turnovers. But when you’ve got the ball in your hands as much as Wallace has, mistakes happen from time to time.
After Thursday’s 106-63 win over South Carolina State, Calipari said Wallace was an example every teammate should look to for inspiration. And motivation.
“Cason has a clear mind. … He has a clear mind,” Calipari said. “He just plays. If he has a shot, he shoots it. It’s not like I have to score now. I haven’t scored in the last (few minutes).” He doesn’t play like that.
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…but Sahvir Wheeler is no slouch either.
Credit to Wallace: He played so well, it’s incredibly easy to forget Wheeler, last season’s All-SEC first-team pick, at times. The player who finished third in assists per game in Division I last season. The player whose 207 assists in 2021-22 was the fourth-best performance in a single campaign in Britain’s rich history.
Of course, if anyone needs a reminder of just how talented Wheeler is, all he had to do was look at his season debut when he had 11 points, 11 assists and six rebounds in 27 minutes off the bench in a win against Duquesne last week.
Wheeler followed with 16 points and eight rebounds against Michigan State and added 10 more assists against South Carolina State on Thursday.
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As his knee continues to get stronger — he injured it during a practice session last month and then made it worse in an exhibition against Missouri Western State that left him for the final exhibition (against Kentucky State) and the season opener (against Howard) — Wheeler eliminated it gets better.
The way he plays, Calipari said, shows the values of the program.
“We teach serving leadership. Yes, that’s part of being a great teammate, that mentality,” said Calipari after the dominant victory on Thursday. “Sahvir today, 10 assists? We pass the ball.”
Oscar Tshiebwe shows no signs of slowing down
It’s not news to point out that Tshiebwe is one of college basketball’s greatest players. That Best if you look at last season when he brought home every major international player of the year. But on Sunday he will have to face one of his biggest obstacles – literally and figuratively – to repeat that feat this season: Gonzaga’s Drew Timme.
The 6-foot-10, 235-pound Texas is an inch taller than Tshiebwe but gives up 25 pounds.
Two unanimous picks for the AP’s preseason All-America First Team. Two front-runners for the title of “Best College Hooper in the Country”.
Calipari said it reminded him of a duel many moons ago: Marcus Camby, his big star in Massachusetts, met Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan.
“You would have thought there was no one else in the game and there were no coaches,” said Calipari, whose Minutemen won 60-46 on Dec. 7, 1995. “It was (as it was) one on one, I’ll tell you. … The hype about it was ridiculous. So I went through it.
While the fight on the pitch will be intense, Calipari doesn’t think it’s going to be nasty. He speaks to Gonzaga coach Mark Few several times a month. Tshiebwe and Timme have performed at events together and respect each other. After losing 22 points and 18 rebounds – off the bench, mind you – in Tuesday’s loss, he’s ready for the challenge of Timme and the Bulldogs in attendance.
Tshiebwe will also try to start another double-double series; His 17-straight-game run with at least 10 points and 10 rebounds ended Thursday. In a game, he shouldn’t even step onto the field.
“The reason we played him is because it’s a different game for the rest of our players when he’s there,” Calipari said. “One of the things that we did really poorly against Michigan State is the backfeed. Now tell me why that would have happened?
“We don’t post a ball if it’s not in there. Now all of a sudden it’s in there and you’re trying to post it and you’re not a good mail passer. We worked on that (Wednesday) and (Thursday) on the shootaround: how to throw it and make sure you’re ready to put it on the post.”
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Free throws take work
Kentucky has been underwhelming on the only shots a player is guaranteed to be open every time. The Wildcats are 60-90 from the free throw line this season. That’s a 66.7% win rate, which ranks ninth in the 14-team SEC through Thursday night.
The good news is that the Wildcats have more tries than any school in the conference. The worry is that in tight games against the country’s best teams, hitting just two out of three free throws won’t be enough. UK saw it for themselves in Tuesday’s double overtime loss to MSU.
The Wildcats reached their season average of 66.7% (16 to 24) at Gainbridge Fieldhouse; Compare that to the Spartans, who made 23 of their 27 (85.2%) attempts.
In one game, Britain had ample opportunity to put away MSU, its charity streak inconsistency coming back to bite the Wildcats. It’s an area that needs improvement if Britain is to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2015.
Reach Kentucky basketball and football reporter Ryan Black at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @RyanABlack.