Big Blue Preview: Kentucky at South Carolina
Two days have passed since Kentucky fans got to see Zvonimir Ivisic play for the first time. However, the buzz from the big man’s debut has only slightly lessened.
When UK assistant coach Chin Coleman met the media on Monday prior to Kentucky’s Tuesday game against South Carolina, the first five questions from local scribes were all related to Ivisic.
In his UK debut, the big man from Croatia had 13 points, five rebounds, three blocked shots, two assists and two steals. He also made three of four from behind the arc as the Cats beat Georgia 105-96.
While adding a talented player like Ivisic is a bonus, the Kentucky coaching staff needs to manage not one, not two, but three players (Ivisic, Aaron Bradshaw and Ugonna Onyenso) who are seven feet tall or taller. How does head coach John Calipari manage all of those guys within the framework of the team?
“We’ll figure it out,” Coleman said. “Coach Cal will figure it out. You’ve got to think about it – we’ve coached five different teams this year already. Coach has done an unbelievable job with the moving pieces, who’s in, who’s out and figuring it out. He’s the best at it for a reason, so he’ll figure it out.”
In a best case scenario, what would the addition of Ivisic add to the Cats?
“Hopefully it gives us some shot blocking and makes us a better rebounding team,” Coleman said. “It should help us defensively in terms of rim protection. The fact that Z and Aaron are good shooters, it should keep the floor spaced.”
Five players on this year’s roster have missed time due to injury or, in the case of Ivisic, not being eligible. Coleman says that with all of the moving parts, it takes time for the coaching staff to figure out how to best use the available pieces.
“We’ll continue to grow, we’ll continue to figure different things out again,” Coleman said. “This is another team. It’s going to take us a little time to figure this out.”
South Carolina has been one of the biggest surprises in the country this season. After finishing last season with an 11-21 record, head coach Lamont Paris has this year’s Gamecocks playing much better. South Carolina is 15-3 overall, 3-2 in conference play and 9-1 at home. The Gamecocks’ only home loss came last Tuesday against Georgia, 74-69.
Coleman and the UK staff know that this game will be one of contrasting styles.
“They’re playing good right now. They’re 3-2 in our league,” Coleman said. “They have a lot of confidence, they’re playing well. They don’t beat themselves. They are 347th, I think, in pace of play, so this is like a boxing match, a clash of two different styles. We want to play ultra fast. They want to milk the clock a little bit. We have to get the game at our pace.”
Tipoff for Tuesday’s game is set for 7 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
Last Time Out: Georgia Recap
The buzz inside Rupp Arena could be felt before Saturday’s game against Georgia. The Big Blue Nation had plenty to be excited about.
UK was set to honor one if its most beloved teams, the 1984 Final Four squad that featured Sam Bowie, Kenny Walker, Melvin Turpin and Jim Master, among others, at halftime.
But the biggest news was that UK learned earlier in the day that Zvonimir Ivisic, the 7-2 freshman from Croatia, had been ruled eligible by the NCAA, meaning he could play in Saturday’s game.
Ivisic entered the game with 16 minutes to play in the first half.The Rupp Arena crowd gave him a standing ovation, then waited to see what UK’s newest addition could do.
The crowd was waiting for a reason to explode, and it was granted that wish just minutes later. With 13:20 left in the first half and Kentucky in the midst of an 11-0 run, Ivisic caught a pass in the lane and flipped a behind the back pass to Antonio Reeves on the left wing for a three-pointer, giving the Cats a 19-10 advantage and forcing a Georgia timeout.
Kentucky would build a 28-point lead in the second half, then was forced to hang on late to beat Georgia 105-96.
Tre Mitchell led the Cats with 23 points and Reeves had 21. D.J. Wagner had 18 points and a season-high 10 assists.
Ivisic scored 11 points in his first five minutes of action, adding three rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and a steal during that same span of time. He finished with 13 points, five rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals.
UK head coach John Calipari knows that Ivisic can get even better, but he liked his debut on Saturday.
“He’s got a ways to go,” Calipari said. “But I told them – you know why he was wide open? Because they didn’t think he could shoot threes. They had never seen him play. It was a good start for him.”
Cats Yet to be at Full Strength
Seventeen games into the 2023-24 season, the Wildcats have yet to be at full strength. Between offseason injuries to Aaron Bradshaw and Ugonna Onyenso, seven games missed by Adou Thiero and Zvonimir Ivišić not being available until Jan. 20, this team has yet to have every piece available.
Aaron Bradshaw: Missed the team’s first seven games recovering from offseason foot surgery. He returned to action Dec. 2 vs. UNC Wilmington
Zvonimir Ivišić : Missed the team’s first 16 games of the season and was cleared to play for the Georgia game on Jan. 20
Ugonna Onyenso: Missed the team’s first nine games recovering from offseason foot surgery. He returned to action Dec. 16 vs. North Carolina
Adou Thiero: Has missed seven total games this season, including each of the last six games. He has not played since Dec. 21 at Louisville
D.J. Wagner: UK’s everyday starter at point guard, he missed UK’s game against UNC Wilmington with an ankle injury he suffered late in the first half against Miami