John Calipari's message to Zvonimir Ivisic: If you want to be on the court, play defense

On3 imageby:Zack Geoghegan03/01/24


If Kentucky’s last two games are any indication of what’s to come, Zvonimir Ivisic figures to be an important piece to the Wildcats’ postseason puzzle.

The 7-foot-2 freshman played 20 minutes against Alabama last weekend and 21 more against Mississippi State the next time out on Tuesday. His previous career-high was 16 minutes in his thrilling debut against Georgia back in January. He averaged just six minutes per game across the seven outings in between before sliding into the rotation against the Crimson Tide.

So what’s led to this sudden increase in playing time? It’s pretty simple, actually — defense.

“(John Calipari) basically told me, if you play defense, you’re gonna play,” Ivisic said on Friday. “If you don’t play defense, you won’t play.”

Ivisic took that message to heart. Although he’s not a perfect defender, he’s showing signs of improvement. Especially against Mississippi State, when he was getting bullied early on in the game before digging in and helping create stops down the stretch.

It’s not just rim protection either (although he had four blocks against Alabama and three against MSU), Ivisic is getting lower into his stances and standing his ground more. He even drew a key offensive foul against the Bulldogs in the second half by absorbing a big shoulder blow.

Ivisic’s teammate, freshman guard DJ Wagner, has seen the defensive progress firsthand.

“Especially in a physical aspect of the game, that’s something Coach has been preaching to all of us,” Wagner said. “We got to play a little more physical and that’s gonna help us win more games. So that’s what (Ivisic’s) been doing, he’s been playing more physical, been following his defensive principles and it’s been showing.”

No one has been harping on this in recent weeks more than Calipari. Everyone knows how skilled Ivisic is on offense (you’ve seen the behind-the-back passes and contested three-pointers). He’s not lacking any confidence on that side of the floor. Calipari said during his weekly radio show on Wednesday that he wants to see the same kind of certainty on the other end.

Slowly but surely, Ivisic is finding his footing on defense. He says it mostly comes down to toughness and effort. At least in the last two games, improvements have been made. Ivisic will have the opportunity to do so for a third straight time on Saturday when Kentucky hosts Arkansas at Rupp Arena.

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