LEXINGTON, K.Y. – Gonzaga figures to have its hands full with Kentucky’s starting unit – a lineup that features last year’s SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year (Antonio Reeves) and two or three other players who could hear their names called in the 2024 NBA draft.
Things won’t get any easier for the Zags when John Calipari turns to his bench Saturday at Rupp Arena .
By itself, Calipari’s second unit could produce three first-round NBA draft picks a few months from now, making the sixth, seventh and eighth players on Gonzaga’s scouting report just as important as the top five.
The Wildcats haven’t been at full strength this season and Calipari’s starting/bench rotations against Gonzaga could hinge on the availability of forward Tre Mitchell and guard DJ Wagner, regular starters who missed Tuesday’s SEC game at Vanderbilt with injuries.
If one or both suit up on Saturday, Calipari’s bench options could include a pair of projected lottery-pick guards, Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard, along with 7-foot-2 center Zvonimir Ivisic, a freshman from Croatia who’s generated buzz as a potential first-round NBA draft selection since becoming eligible in late January.
Despite playing off the bench in 21 of 22 games this season, Dillingham’s been Kentucky’s second-leading scorer at 15.5 ppg and recently broke out for a career-high 35 points in a 103-92 loss to Tennessee.
Sheppard, a local recruit from London, Kentucky, has made a somewhat surprising splash for the Wildcats as a freshman, and ranks fourth on the team at 12.0 ppg. The country’s 79th-rated recruit (247Sports) came off the bench in his first 18 games at Kentucky but was pressed into a starting role the past four due to Wagner’s injury.
“Sheppard, I know people thought he was good, but I don’t know that people knew he was going to be this good,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Monday on his weekly radio show. “Then Dillingham was just red-hot Saturday and he’s just explosive, quick and just so dynamic with the ball.”
Both Kentucky guards have the ability to light up opponents from the 3-point line – Sheppard’s made 51 of 95 (53%) this season while Dillingham’s shot 42 of 97 (43%) – but also have the ability to use the space they create as shooters to get teammates involved, combining to average 8.1 assists per game.
An updated NBA draft guide from the Ringer projects both guards going inside the top 10, with Sheppard to the Charlotte Hornets at No. 4 and Dillingham to the Houston Rockets at No. 8.
Although Ivisic has only played in four games since becoming eligible, the versatile 7-footer – who was recently projected as the 33rd overall pick by Bleacher Report – could add another wrinkle for Kentucky.
Ivisic showed his range by making 3 of 4 3-pointers in his Jan. 20 college debut against Georgia. He also had a dunk against the Bulldogs, added three blocked shots and recorded two steals in only 16 minutes.
Limiting Kentucky’s bench, which averages nearly 29 points per game, will be a key component to beating the Wildcats, but a GU win might also require help from the two players likely to see time off Few’s bench.
Braden Huff (10.8 ppg) and Dusty Stromer (5.4 ppg) have combined to reach double figures 15 times this season, but the freshmen have largely been ineffective in GU’s six losses. In those games, Huff’s averaged 4.1 ppg while Stromer’s averaged 3.6 ppg.