A theme has presented itself in Kentucky‘s first four games: slow starts, followed by quick recoveries and bloated leads. The total product has been undoubtedly impressive with three blowout wins and one nail-biting loss on the big stage, but the Wildcats have been objectively better with two players on the floor — both bench pieces.
Well, bench pieces by definition. They’re clearly starter-quality talents in their own right, just not in the starting lineup. How long that’ll be the case appears to be shifting by the game.
Numbers back up the eye test
Let’s put a basic, surface-level stat out there to simply make a bigger point: Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham are a combined +150 in the plus/minus through four games. DJ Wagner and Justin Edwards are a combined +79. Let’s also make it abundantly clear that all four players need to (and will) play — and play a lot. They’ve all got their strengths and weaknesses, but contribute to winning basketball.
Tonight, though, it was Sheppard and Dillingham contributing the most to winning, combining for 45 points on an absurd 16-20 shooting and 10-14 from three to go with 14 assists, seven rebounds, five steals and two blocks. +42 for the former and +27 for the latter — both team-highs — for a combined +69 overall.
The numbers back up the eye test, just as they really have all season. As the sample size continues to grow, the duo’s production does the same. Together.
“Right now, me and Rob are clicking,” Sheppard said after Kentucky’s 101-67 win over Stonehill.
Game-changing sparks off the bench
The Wildcats found themselves down by as many as six in the opening minutes, tie game at the 16:16 mark — when Sheppard and Dillingham first replaced Wagner and Edwards. 13 of the team’s next 18 made field goals to close out the half were scored or assisted by the super subs. Kentucky went into the locker room up 21 points.
Coming out of the break, that lead shrunk back down to 12 with the original starters, leading to quick-trigger substitutions from John Calipari at the 17:12 mark. Sheppard and Dillingham would then combine for scores or assists on four of Kentucky’s next five buckets to push the lead back up to 23 points. The latter’s made 3-pointer at the 3:44 mark gave the home team its second-largest lead of the night at 36 points — Jordan Burks scored a layup in the final minute to push it to 37 before closing out at 34.
Point being, Kentucky was at its best when Sheppard and Dillingham were on the floor together, just as it’s been all season. And as we start looking ahead, it’s fair to wonder how quickly those spark-plug pieces off the bench become the Wildcats’ go-to answers in the starting lineup.
Not as a statement to say Wagner and Edwards are playing poorly and need to be off the floor. Sheppard and Dillingham simply have to be on — they’re both just too valuable to leave on the bench.
Are they Kentucky’s best players?
The former is shooting team-highs of 69.2% from the field and 70.6% from three while scoring 13.3 points per contest, good for third overall. As for the latter, he’s the second-leading scorer at 16.8 points per game on 50% shooting and 43.5% from deep. Sheppard leads the team in steals (12) and blocks (6) while Dillingham is the leading assist man (17), adding seven steals of his own — just ten combined turnovers through four games.
“You can’t overplay one or the other. You’re leaving open a lethal weapon if you do,” fifth-year senior Tre Mitchell said following the win. “Those two played unbelievably tonight. You’ve got to think, they’re coming off the bench too. There’s not many teams ready for that. It’s insane.”
“Reed was tremendous, so was Rob,” head coach John Calipari added.
Not just tonight, but all season. They’ve been two of Kentucky’s most productive players — and arguably their best — while earning fifth- and sixth-most minutes on the team. That’s been the storyline, and it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
A breakthrough coming for Wagner and Edwards
So what do you do with Wagner and Edwards? You play them, obviously. Kentucky needs both players to be good for this team to live up to its potential as a legitimate national title contender. Look at the Kansas loss. Either of them make shots and the Wildcats leave Chicago with a win over the top-ranked team in the country.
Neither are playing their best basketball, but Sheppard expects a breakthrough — and soon.
“Tonight was our night, but next game, Monday, I’m calling it now: DJ and Justin have great games. They’re going to come out and play well,” he said. “They’re both really, really good players. Two of the best players in the world, in my opinion. In practice, they’re super hard to go against. They’re competitors and basketball players.”
Shooting and scoring balance
That’s the beauty of this team. There is so much talent to go around that living and dying by a player or two isn’t necessary. If one struggles, there are seven others in the rotation right now capable of stepping up with three more on the way. This team is death by a thousand cuts, four players finishing with at least 15 points while Wagner and Edwards added nine points apiece.
Tre Mitchell set the tone early with 13 first-half points on 6-8 shooting before closing out with 15, adding four rebounds, four assists and two steals. Antonio Reeves added 15 of his own on 6-10 overall and 3-6 from deep to go with five rebounds and four assists. They were both terrific, the perfect zone-busters against a team that refused to get out of the 2-3, despite the Wildcats making them pay over and over. Mitchell stuck in the middle of the zone and drilled mid-range jumpers like layups while Reeves and Sheppard had field days on the outside. Even Wagner hit three of his own from deep, Kentucky as a team hitting 17 3-pointers, good for most in the Calipari era. And they hit 53.1% of them.
“I have got a good shooting team,” Calipari said. “And when I haven’t had (them), we don’t take as many 3s. We have got guys here that got a green light because they are really skilled.”
The best? Sheppard and Dillingham continue to prove they’re firmly in the conversation.
Playing with ‘house money’
John Calipari let Wagner and Edwards play through their mistakes in Kentucky’s loss to Kansas rather than riding the hot hands. He said afterward he was “playing the game as it’s unfolding, not even thinking of somebody’s ego at this point,” adding “they’re going to have to grow up fast to be here.”
Tonight, he drew a clear line in the sand between those who are mentally where they need to be and those who are not. That specific mindset has separated those who make it at Kentucky and beyond. Sheppard and Dillingham fit that category right now.
“Some guys will play like they have house money and other guys you see playing are a little tentative, thinking a little bit too much,” Calipari said. “Every player that could really play that I have coached has been that way. … They know how to deal with expectations and they go in that league and none of that stuff fazes ’em.
“(Rob) and Reed, house money. They’re just playing. We’ve got to get a team full of guys with that mentality. … That’s what’s great about Kentucky. The guys that fight through that, they end up going and they succeed.”
They may not have been Kentucky’s highest-ranked signees this past cycle, but they’ve inarguably been the team’s best lead guard options through four games.
“I can put them in situations. I can teach and do and then you put them on the stage, but they have got to go. They have got to be that star,” he added. “They have got to come out and really do their thing. That’s what’s crazy about where this team is right now.
“Like today, I thought D.J. played better but all of a sudden Rob and Reed played so well you just…”
The unsaid second part of that response is what this team may be facing head-on sooner rather than later.