One of the most highly anticipated games in Gonzaga’s history arrives Sunday when Kentucky, one of college basketball’s bluest blue bloods, tangles with the second-ranked Zags.
The teams have a common opponent: The Zags edged Michigan State 64-63 on an aircraft carrier last Friday in San Diego. The Wildcats lost in double overtime to the Spartans on Tuesday in Indianapolis.
We connected with Ben Roberts, Kentucky beat writer for the Lexington Herald-Journal, for a closer look at the fourth-ranked Wildcats.
Q: What’s been the good and the bad of how Kentucky has played in its first three games?
Roberts: Much of the good happened in the first two games, against lesser opponents Howard and Duquesne, with much of the bad coming against Michigan State on Tuesday.
In those first two games, Kentucky played generally good defense, a good sign for the Cats after (coach) John Calipari called out that aspect of his team early in the preseason. This has the potential to be one of Calipari’s better defensive teams, which is saying something. UK’s 3-point shooting (22 for 43, 51.2%) through two games was a revelation, and Calipari has said this could be his most prolific 3-point-shooting team in 14 years as UK’s coach.
It was also encouraging for Kentucky that they looked so good with key players Oscar Tshiebwe and Daimion Collins (who both missed the first two games) and Sahvir Wheeler (who missed the first game and much of the preseason). When Wheeler returned in game two, Kentucky had 22 assists off 28 made baskets, and this has been a team willing to make the extra pass early.
The bad: Kentucky was not good in transition defense early against Michigan State, a worrying sign for a team that has stressed transition play. The Cats also had several missed assignments in the halfcourt Tuesday night, leading to open looks for the Spartans. UK committed 15 turnovers against Michigan State, many of those miscues coming as unforced errors toward the end of regulation and during the two overtime periods – a scene that gave fans flashbacks to the meltdown against Saint Peter’s in the NCAA Tournament last March.
Tshiebwe was terrific in his season debut, but his teammates didn’t do much to help him on the boards. That will surely be a talking point for Calipari moving forward.
Q: Tshiebwe was outstanding in his return Tuesday with 22 points and 18 rebounds in 34 minutes against Michigan State. Is he more important to the Wildcats offensively or defensively?
Roberts: The easiest answer here is both. His rebounding obviously sets him apart, and that impacts both ends of the floor. Last year, his offense had the bigger impact. Every opponent had to focus on him, and that opened opportunities for teammates. He put a big emphasis this offseason on becoming a more agile, fluid defender. His goal was to improve as a shot-blocker and work to become better with his lateral movement, to stay in front of opposing guards. He looked much better in both areas Tuesday, and if that carries over it will be scary for the opposition.
Tshiebwe’s offensive game is also expected to take a jump. Teammates have said he’s a much better and more aware passer this season, and that was evident at the team’s pro day last month (his last practice before the knee injury that sidelined him for several weeks). He’s also been working on extending his range, though I think the passing ability will be a much bigger deal for Kentucky’s offense, especially with the outside shooting they should have this season.
Q: How have guards Cason Wallace and Sahvir Wheeler operated together with both having the ability to run the offense, create and distribute?
Roberts: This is interesting because Calipari kept these two point guards separate for the preseason, placing them on opposing teams in scrimmages. So, we’re just now getting a look at the dynamic. And I think that means they’re still figuring out each other’s games, too, to a certain extent, especially with Wheeler being in and out for a few weeks with a knee injury.
They’re both terrific distributors and unselfish playmakers, and they’re both capable of playing with the ball in their hands and generating offense. I still see Wheeler as the primary guy when both players are on the floor. Calipari has a lot of experience playing two point guards at the same time to great success, starting with John Wall and Eric Bledsoe during his first year at Kentucky. In those previous situations, there was still a guy who got things started more in the halfcourt, but those two guards should be able to play off each other well and give teams different looks.
One factor will be both players’ outside shooting. Wheeler hasn’t been great in that area in the past, but it’s been a major focus this offseason. Wallace came in with the reputation as a good 3-point shooter. If they’re both threats, that’s really going to open up the floor and allow them to truly be interchangeable getting that offense started. Once they get past that first layer of defense, both players are hard to stop and fully capable of hitting contested shots at the rim or drawing in help defense and finding open teammates.
Q: What are one or two keys for Kentucky to have success against Gonzaga on Sunday?
Roberts: Three-point shooting will be huge against quality teams this season. Kentucky was 22 for 43 over its first two games. Then just 7 for 25 against Michigan State, which did a great job of limiting good looks. Antonio Reeves and CJ Fredrick are the two to watch here, and they’ll be hunting for open shots Sunday.
From what I saw of the Gonzaga-Texas game, it seems Kentucky should have the guard play to really put some pressure on the Zags’ backcourt on both ends of the floor. Especially on defense. That Wheeler-Wallace combo has the potential to be one of the very best defensive tandems in the country this season, and – so far, at least – Gonzaga’s playmaking seems to be lacking. Those two UK players will both be relentless on defense.
I’m also interested to see how much these two teams run Sunday. Calipari was preaching it all preseason, and he seemed especially disappointed in Kentucky’s transition play for much of Tuesday’s game.
Just about anyone on UK’s team can start the break, and all of these guys run the floor really well and are capable finishers.
And then, of course, keeping Tshiebwe on the court and out of foul trouble is going to top any “keys to the game” list for the Cats this season.
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