Men's Basketball
Big Blue Preview: Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt

Big Blue Preview: Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt

by Tim Letcher

Kentucky hosts its final home basketball game on Wednesday night (9 p.m. ET, SEC Network) as the 15th-ranked Cats host Vanderbilt in an important Southeastern Conference matchup.

Prior to Wednesday’s game, UK will honor four seniors who will be playing their final game at Rupp Arena. Brennan Canada, Tre Mitchell, Antonio Reeves and Kareem Watkins will all be playing for the final time in Rupp Arena.

Canada (who will not go through Senior Day ceremonies for a second straight year), a native Kentuckian, and Watkins have seen limited time on the floor during their careers. Still, they will be given a warm reception for their dedication to the program.

Meanwhile, both Mitchell and Reeves have been key cogs in Kentucky’s 2023-24 season. Reeves is an All-American candidate, is in the running for SEC Player of the Year and a number of other postseason awards. He knows that, once his career in Lexington is over, he will have fond memories of his time at UK.

“It means a lot. The opportunities that I got here,” Reeves said. “The coaches who have helped me out so much and the brothers I’ve had here as well.”

Reeves will miss playing in Rupp Arena because of the Big Blue Nation’s support.

“It’s really crazy. It is an amazing atmosphere,” Reeves said. “Every time I look up, it’s filled to the top. It’s crazy to see how many fans support us.”

While the Senior Day festivities are sure to be touching and memorable, the Cats also know that Wednesday’s game is crucial for the upcoming postseason. UK is jockeying for position in both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments and now is not the time to have something unexpected happen.

“Just take care of business,” Reeves said. “Last two (games). You can’t take anybody lightly, it’s the SEC. You have to be ready for it.”

Mitchell knows that it’s important for the team to be peaking at the right time, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

“A connectedness defensively, for sure, so that we’re ready for March basketball,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to focus on one game at a time. It’s nice to look ahead but we still have business to take care of.”

Kentucky and Vanderbilt met earlier this season, with the Cats winning 109-77 on Feb. 6 in Nashville. Now, UK looks for the season sweep, and March momentum, on Senior Night at Rupp Arena.

Last Time Out: Arkansas Recap

When Kentucky and Arkansas met in Fayetteville on Jan. 27, both teams struggled on offense. Kentucky came out on top in a plodding, 63-57 victory. In the rematch on Saturday, the game was played at a much different pace.

Kentucky (21-8, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) placed seven players in double figures on its way to a 111-102 win and a season sweep over the Hogs on Saturday inside Rupp Arena.

Antonio Reeves led the scoring barrage with 22 points, but he got plenty of help from his running mates. D.J. Wagner had 19 points, Rob Dillingham and Aaron Bradshaw each had 15, Zvonimir Ivisic had 12 points and a career-high nine rebounds, while Justin Edwards and Reed Sheppard each had 10.

It was the first time that Kentucky had seven double-figure scorers since Feb. 19, 2005 in a win against Mississippi State. Randolph Morris led the Cats in scoring that night with 17 points. Saturday’s game marked just the sixth time in school history that Kentucky has had seven double-figure scorers in a game.

Arkansas scored the first four points of the game before a Wagner three got the Cats on the board. After the Hogs got a bucket on their next possession, Wagner hit another three to tie the game at 6-6.

The Hogs made their first six shots from the floor and took a 12-8 lead in the process. The game would be tied at 12, 14 and 17 before Kentucky scored five in a row, capped by a pair of Tre Mitchell, to lead 22-17.

Arkansas answered by scoring the next seven points to lead 24-22. However, Wagner hit his third three of the game to give the Cats a 25-24 lead with 10:23 to play in the half. The Hogs scored the next three points before a Reeves three and a Bradshaw dunk gave UK a 30-28 advantage.

The seesaw game continued as Arkansas scored four in a row to lead 31-30. Bradshaw then scored on a dunk and converted a subsequent free throw to make it 33-31 Cats with 7:39 left in the half. However, the Hogs would tie the game at 33 and it would also be tied at 36 and 38 before the Hogs scored four in a row to make it 42-38.

Kentucky would answer with a Bradshaw layup, a pair of Sheppard threes and a Reeves layup to lead 48-42. After an Arkansas three, Bradshaw hit a three of his own, and later added two free throws to give UK a 53-45 lead. The Cats would lead 53-48 at the half.

Wagner got the scoring started in the second half with his fourth triple of the game. The Cats would build a 10-point lead, 60-50, before Arkansas went on an 12-1 run to re-take the lead, 62-61. A Dillingham runner gave UK the lead back, 63-62.

Sheppard then hit a runner in the lane and Bradshaw knocked down two free throws to give UK a 67-62 lead. After two Arkansas free throws, UK got three free throws, one from Bradshaw and two from Reeves, to lead 70-64. However, Arkansas fought back with an 18-5 run to lead 84-75 with 9:06 to play.

Kentucky would respond with an 12-4 run, sparked by five points from Ivisic, to get within one, 88-87 with 6:31 remaining. After Arkansas got a pair of free throws, Dillingham hit a pair from the charity stripe, then made a driving layup to give the Cats a 91-90 lead.

After Arkansas took the lead back, Dillingham found Edwards with a lob pass for a dunk and the Cats led 93-92 with 4:45 left. Dillingham added a pair of free throws to give the Cats a 95-92 advantage.

The run continued for the Cats when Dillingham found Ivisic for a dunk, making it 97-92. An Edwards free throw made it 98-92 with 3:18 to play. From there, the Cats were able to keep the Hogs at bay and secure the victory.

Reed This: Sheppard Stats’ Snapshot

Reed Sheppard is the only player in the country that has amassed at least 75 steals, dished out at least 120 assists and made at least 60 3-pointers through March 2. Through just 27 games, he was the only player in the history of the UK program to have those totals.

Per, his 3-point percentage of 51.7% ranks first in the country, his true-shooting percentage (69.3%), is fifth and his effective field-goal percentage ranks ninth (67.0%).

Sheppard had the game of his life in UK’s come-from-behind win at Mississippi State on Feb. 27. The London, Kentucky, native poured in a career-high 32 points and added five boards, seven assists, two blocks and two steals. Twenty-three of his points came after halftime. Eleven of them came in the final 93 seconds.

It was the only game of 30-or more points, seven-plus assists, five-plus rebounds, two-plus blocks and two-plus steals in the NCAA this season and one of only 11 such games going back to 1996-97. It is only the second by an SEC player in that time frame.

Furthermore, Sheppard is the first Kentucky player in the last 25 seasons to record multiple games with 25 points, five rebounds and five assists and the first Kentucky player with 30 points, five boards and five dimes in a game since Derek Anderson in November of 1996.

Meanwhile, Sheppard has been a nemasis defensively racking up 76 steals on the season. Since steals became an official stat in 1979, the 76 steals are the third-most by a UK player in program history. Only Rajon Rondo (87) and Wayne Turner (79) have more.

He became the first player in UK history to register five steals in three-consecutive games, collecting five thefts against Ole Miss (2/13), Auburn (2/17) and LSU (2/21).

The London, Kentucky, native’s 2.621 per game average ranks seventh in the country and leads the Southeastern Conference. Rondo’s 2.294 per game average is UK’s single-season leader. No other player averaged at least 2.0 per game in program history.

The 6-foot-3 guard also leads the team with 124 assists on the year. His 4.3 per game average ranks fifth in the league. The 124 assists ranks as the 11th-most in single-season history by a UK freshman and he is the 48th player in program history to have 124 or more assists in a season.

With a 51.7% 3-point clip, Sheppard would rank third in single-season history in that category if the season ended today. Cameron Mills made 42 of 79 (53.16) in 1996-97 and Travis Ford hit 101 of 191 (52.88) in 1992-93.

Sheppard is also averaging 12.4 points per game and has topped double-figure scoring in 19 games.

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