Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now
Gonzaga Basketball

Q&A: Kentucky beat writer elaborates on Wildcats’ exceptional offense, struggling defense

Coaches John Calipari, left, and Mark Few greet each other before the Kentucky-Gonzaga showdown during November 2022 at the Arena.  (By Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga and Kentucky resume their six-game series Saturday at famed Rupp Arena in Lexington.

No. 17 Kentucky will be looking to avenge an 88-72 loss to the Zags last November at the Arena. Rosters for both teams have changed considerably since the first series meeting.

The Wildcats (16-6, 6-4 SEC) brought in four five-star recruits, the foundation of the nation’s No. 1-ranked class. The Zags (17-6, 8-2 West Coast Conference) returned Anton Watson, Nolan Hickman and Ben Gregg and added transfers Ryan Nembhard, Graham Ike and Steele Venters (out for the season with torn ACL).

We called on Ben Roberts, Kentucky beat writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader, for a closer look at the Wildcats. Roberts is on X (@BenRobertsHL) and his articles can be found at Kentucky.com.

Q: Kentucky is No. 1 in scoring offense (89.7 points per game). The shooting percentages, assists are off the charts. What (or who?) makes UK so good at that end of the floor?

Roberts: This UK backcourt is filled with guys who are uniquely skilled offensively, unselfish and have a high degree of basketball smarts. D.J. Wagner can get past just about anyone off the dribble, which either leads to opportunities for himself at the basket or open shots for others as the defense collapses on him. He can also score at a variety of angles at the rim. Rob Dillingham is incredibly crafty with the ball and can create space for himself at any time, and Reed Sheppard is also a pass-first player who can create opportunities for others. Antonio Reeves is a three-level scorer, and Reeves, Dillingham and Sheppard are all terrific from 3-point range. Cal (coach John Calipari) often plays three of these four players at the same time, which – while it can sometimes hurt UK on the defensive end and on the boards – makes things very difficult for opposing defenses.

Kentucky excels in transition. SEC teams have been trying to limit those opportunities in recent weeks. UK’s bigs are also versatile offensively, especially Tre Mitchell, who started the season as the team’s main ‘5’ – due to all three 7-footers being sidelined – but excelled as a “quarterback” of the Cats’ offense, going up in the high post and facilitating teammates from there. Another very unselfish player. Mitchell can also hit from deep and will shoot when he’s open. Ugonna Onyenso is really the only player on the team that isn’t a threat from 3-point range. Everyone else is capable of hitting from deep, and they’re all more than willing to shoot if left open.

Q: The numbers aren’t as pretty defensively. The Wildcats allow 78.3 points, 317th nationally. What are the main defensive issues?

Roberts: Kentucky has been pretty bad all season on defense, not the norm for a Calipari-coached team. They’re not a very physical team, and they don’t rebound well (especially by Calipari’s standards). Some of the bigger SEC teams, especially, have been able to push Kentucky around in the paint. There’s also a clear lack of connectivity on defense. The roster consists of freshmen, two sophomores who didn’t play much last season, and two fifth-year players (Mitchell and Reeves) who have never been known for their defensive abilities. No scholarship player had been in the program for more than one year heading into this season.

Reeves, who was often a defensive liability last season, is actually one of UK’s better perimeter defenders this season, with the freshmen often getting lost and out of position on that end of the court. There’s been a recent effort for the Cats to run opponents off the 3-point line and force them to take – UK hopes – tougher 2s, especially with all three 7-footers now in the lineup. All of them are capable shot-blockers. It’s worth noting that Kentucky is 22 games into the season and still hasn’t played at full strength. It’s fair to think that the Cats’ lack of communication and connectivity on defense is a symptom of never having everyone available at the same time, and the hope in UK’s camp is – if they can get everyone healthy – the defense will improve as rotations solidify and guys get used to playing next to each other.

Q: Back in November I highlighted a key player on the best teams on Gonzaga’s schedule. I wrote about Kentucky’s Justin Edwards, one of the nation’s highest-ranked recruits and a projected lottery pick. His stats (8.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 21.6 minutes) indicate he hasn’t had the impact many expected. How would you describe his freshman season so far?

Roberts: Edwards was the right choice before the season, when he was projected by many as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He started off OK but really hit a rough patch over the past several weeks. Frustrating is probably the best word to describe his freshman season. Even when UK’s offense has been on – as it usually is – Edwards hasn’t really gotten in on the action much. Calipari has said he gets down on himself following missed shots and offensive miscues and that lingers and leads to shortcomings elsewhere. He’s capable of putting in on the floor and getting to the rim, but we haven’t seen a whole lot of that this season. He’s often been tentative with the ball, and when he is aggressive, he’s been forcing bad shots instead of playing within the natural flow of the game.

He had perhaps his best game Tuesday at Vanderbilt (a career-high 17 points), and Edwards said afterward that Calipari has told him he now wants him to look to pass first. The idea is that playing style will ultimately lead to more open looks for Edwards later in possessions. He had three assists playing with that mentality Tuesday, matching his assist total from the previous five games combined. Edwards’ strengths lie in his all-around game, and – despite the lofty draft profile – he was never going to be Kentucky’s leading scorer. UK’s coaches are hoping to get more of that versatility out of him ,,, .

Q: What are a couple of keys for the Wildcats in Saturday’s game?

Roberts: An obvious one is getting healthy. D.J. Wagner (ankle) and Tre Mitchell (back) – two regular starters and, arguably, the two most important players on the team – were both out Tuesday and will be questionable for Saturday. UK was 0-3 without Wagner until Tuesday’s win (over the worst team in the SEC, by far). I don’t think both will be back Saturday, but it’s possible one of the two is able to play.

I’m most interested to see how Kentucky comes out defensively. Cal has said that 70% of the remaining practices will be spent on defense, finally acknowledging that UK won’t go very far in March by simply trying to outscore other teams. They put up 92 and 91 points in their last two home games and lost both (to Tennessee and Florida, respectively).

Gonzaga is the first of three straight opponents that rank in the top 30 in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. So far this season, Kentucky has played six games against teams in the top 50 in those ratings, giving up an average of 91.8 points per game. UK is 2-4 in those games. Rebounding – and especially limiting offensive boards and second-chance opportunities – will also be a big key in any game Kentucky plays.