LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky will need big things from a smaller lineup until further notice.
Fortunately for the No. 16 Wildcats, they have enough players under seven feet capable of carrying the load.
Coach John Calipari has landed his best freshmen class in several years along with several returnees and a couple of important transfers, fueling the usual expectations of a deep NCAA Tournament run toward a ninth national championship. Fulfilling those lofty goals might take a while with 7-foot freshmen Aaron Bradshaw (offseason foot surgery) and Zvonimir Ivisic (NCAA screening process) initially unavailable.
There’s also no telling when 6-11 sophomore Ugonna Onyenso returns from a broken foot sustained this fall. But a successful summer run against international competition without many of those big men has Calipari encouraged.
“The good news is some of the guys came back knowing that they were going to have to elevate their game, elevate their weight training and all that, and it happened,” said the Hall of Famer, whose team won the GLOBL Jam in Canada in July. “We know we have a pretty good team, but we need to add some length and rim protection if we’re going to be that real group that can do something crazy. You got to have rim protection, and I think we’ll have it in due time.”
Considering this mix of veterans, youngsters and newcomers didn’t round into shape until June – with Ivisic enrolling earlier this month – having a trophy already in hand offers a hint of the Wildcats’ potential.
Guard Antonio Reeves (14.4 points per game last season) returns for a fifth season after getting feedback from NBA scouts. Guard Ado Theiro is back and bulked up. Kentucky also added former West Virginia forward Tre Mitchell, who averaged 11.7 points and 5.5 rebounds and grabbed a team-high 142 defensive boards for the Mountaineers.
After that it’s up to the freshmen to live up to their All-American billing.
Guards D.J. Wagner has already shown his ability to shoot and run the floor, while Rob Dillingham’s 40-point eruption during last week’s intrasquad scrimmage revealed another potential scoring option. Justin Edwards (6-8) brings size to the backcourt, while forward Jordan Burks (6-9) adds size in the post and scoring ability.
THE Z PROJECT
Zvonimir Ivisic became Kentucky's ninth newcomer 11 days ago and is practicing while awaiting NCAA clearance for eligibility. The Croatian's availability could be huge with Bradshaw and Onyneso out because of his presence in the paint and on the perimeter. Ivisic averaged 11.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.4 blocks for his home country in the FIBA U20 European Championship and shot 34% from deep.
Calipari said Ivisic has a lot to learn but praised his skill set and development before enrolling.
“Oh my gosh, he's King Kong,” Calipari joked. “All of a sudden, each week that went by, he got better and better. He's a piece to the puzzle for us.”
The departures of two-time All-American forward Oscar Tsheibwe and fellow starters Jacob Toppin, Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston to the NBA draft makes the return of guard Antonio Reeves particularly important. Last year's top sixth man in the SEC will no doubt have bigger roles to score and lead the youngsters in the backcourt. Reeves shot a career-best 40% from behind the arc with a career-high 37 points at Arkansas last March.
Tre Mitchell was a key late addition from the transfer portal who brings in 92 starts among 102 career games at Texas, UMass and West Virginia. The graduate arrived from Morgantown after Hall of Fame Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins resigned following a drunken-driving arrest last month. Mitchell started 32 of 34 games last season and averaged 30 minutes with 28 steals and 21 blocks.
BLUEGRASS BORN, RAISED
Guard Reed Sheppard, 6-3 and another All-American, is rooted in the Wildcats’ basketball tradition. His father, Jeff, won two NCAA titles with Kentucky and was the 1998 Final Four MVP. His mother, Stacey, also played at UK. The London, Kentucky, native scored 3,727 career points for North Laurel High School. He’ll wear his father’s No. 15.
Kentucky opens on Nov. 6 against New Mexico State before facing top-ranked Kansas eight days later in Chicago at the Champions Classic. Non-conference challenges include a Nov. 28 matchup against Miami (Florida), a Dec. 16 showdown against No. 19 North Carolina in Atlanta and the annual rivalry game at Louisville five days later. They open SEC play at Florida on Jan. 6.
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