It was a night to snap back, regroup, recover and refocus for the Kentucky basketball team after a heartbreaking 86-77 double-overtime loss to Michigan State and the South Carolina State Bulldogs stepped into Rupp Arena and took the 106-63 thrashing behind a comprehensive Wildcat effort.
No Kentucky player logged more than 25 minutes in a game that while uneventful or close allowed the Wildcats to work through what went wrong in Tuesday night’s loss as five UK players hit double figures in scoring.
They found their shooting touch, especially from 3-point range, played much better defense, were loose and confident with their play, and even with Oscar Tshiebwe breaking his streak of 17-straight double-doubles they got great play in the paint from Lance Ware and others.
If anyone was looking for highlights and stellar performances that wasn’t going to be the case tonight. Coach John Calipari clearly was looking to finally play and work through lineups where he for the first time had a fully healthy team available.
Sandwiched between Michigan State on Tuesday and No. 2 Gonzaga on Sunday night this game was the perfect teaching moment for Cal and his staff.
The Cats were not dwelling on the loss or looking ahead. Instead, they came out hot, canning four of its first six shots with CJ Fredrick netting the first six points. Kentucky basketball would never trail in the game and 12 players added points to the final tally.
Big Blue shot a season-high 57.4 percent from the field, making 39 of their 68 attempts while crashing the glass for a 48-28 rebounding margin. Kentucky had 9 players combine to dish out 25 assists tonight and had just 13 turnovers.
So what did we learn from Kentucky muzzling the Bulldogs? Let’s take a look.
No. 1 Calipari is going to have to change and give a lot of players minutes
Historically Calipari has wanted to whittle his lineups down to seven or eight players in a regular rotation. That can’t and seems to not be the case this season.
Freshman Chris Livingston came off the bench and to life with 13 points including 4 for 6 field goals and 4-4 at the foul line for his first double-figure game as a Wildcat. Fellow freshman Cason Wallace had 12 points, three assists, and two rebounds while Antonio Reeves netted 11 points.
Jacob Toppin and Damion Collins didn’t put up slashy numbers but their quiet contributions were needed. Toppin had eight points and nine rebounds while Collins added six points and seven boards. Ugonna Onyenso struggled and Calipari had to take him out but not before getting six points and four rebounds.
"“Now I think we are going to have a lot that have this year and they are going to have to accept it game-to-game. I told them, I think the best way we can do this — seven minutes and then we’ll figure out, you may play 18 because the guy playing 26 or 27 is playing really good. Then we’ll let him go and you’re next game. I also have to figure out who is going to finish the game, who are the five that are on the court the last five minutes. Part of that is making free throws. Part of that is execution. Part of that is grit-and-grind and toughness. But who is it? I don’t know yet. But you know, a lot of good stuff today, and you know, we shot the ball, we ran.”"
No. 2 Sahvir Wheeler looked more like the point guard this team needs
Sahvir Wheeler looked like the point guard that this Kentucky basketball team needs at the helm and running the show despite scoring just six points he handed out 10 assists and more importantly didn’t turn the ball over one time.
For Wheeler, it was his seventh double-digit assist game at Kentucky.
The shifty guard can draw criticism for his out-of-control and decision-making passes like the one he threw off the backboard last game on a lob attempt o Collins. Questions are raised about whether we want the ball in his hands in the closing minutes of games.
However, when he is on and in control, the answer is yes like tonight. When other players on the team make his job easier by coming for the ball and knocking down shots that is when he excels.
Kentucky is going to need this kind of performance from him against the Zags on Sunday night.
No. 3 This is the CJ Fredrick that Kentucky fans have been waiting for
Boy how last season’s Kentucky basketball team could have used CJ Fredrick’s shooting, but unfortunately he was hurt and lost for the season before it ever began.
He seemed a bit shaken against the Spartans on Tuesday night, but his smooth elevating shot was spot-on against South Carolina State.
The 6-foot-3 redshirt senior connected on 5 of 11 field goal attempts, including 3 of 7 from 3-point land, was a perfect 4 for 4 at the foul line, grabbed two rebounds, added three assists, four steals, and had just one turnover in 21 minutes. The only thing missing from the stat line was a blocked shot.
No. 4 Lance Ware played his best game as a Kentucky Wildcat
Lance Ware is the total workhorse and has put in all the work over the past four seasons making players around him including Tshiebwe even better.
But last night was his night to shine.
The Camden, New Jersey, native again got the starting nod and played like he is supposed to bang, block, rebound, and give the team everything he has when on the floor. He and Jacob Toppin are the instant energy guys when they are on the floor.
He made all six of his shots from the field on his way to a career-high 12 points to go with three rebounds and two blocked shots.
Calipari was asked how Ware had improved and how his play rubs off on other players.
"“He’s way more confident but I told Ugonna, what did he do that you didn’t do? He sprinted. So he was in a position to go make baskets.”"
Kentucky returns to action on Sunday, traveling to the west coast to take on second-ranked Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington. Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m. EST on ESPN.