This was supposed to be a lazy Saturday afternoon game where Kentucky would roll to an easy victory over a mid-major that finished in plenty of time for fans to catch a dinner reservation afterward. It was to be a get-right game where Aaron Bradshaw would debut and get into the flow of the game while the ‘Cats maintained a comfortable lead throughout. It was supposed to provide an extra week for DJ Wagner‘s ankle to heal, with Kentucky having no mid-week game in preparation for their trip to Philadelphia next weekend.
Unfortunately, no one sent that memo to UNC Wilmington.
Kentucky looked off all night, losing 80-73 thanks to bad turnovers, poor shooting, and horrendous defense across the board. The Rob Dillingham roller coaster had far more downs than ups, Justin Edwards couldn’t buy a basket, and Aaron Bradshaw looked like he was in his first college basketball game. Okay, we’ll forgive the last one.
While Reed Sheppard did what he could to salvage a tough day from his teammates, Saturday afternoon showcased just how important DJ Wagner is to this team.
DJ Wagner is the lead guard for a reason
When DJ Wagner struggled during his first few games of the season while Dillingham and Sheppard shined, there were whispers around Big Blue Nation about sending him to the bench in favor of the hotter hands. That thinking may have been a little premature.
Sheppard provides a calming presence and Dillingham brings the electricity, but DJ Wagner gives this team a bulldog mentality that spreads to everyone else. He is also the vocal leader of the team, and his presence was sorely missed on the floor against UNC Wilmington.
The 24 points per game he averaged in the two games before getting injured would have helped too.
“You’re talking about a playmaker, a dude that attacks the basket very well, draws a lot of attention off of pick-and-roll situations, as well as he dogs the ball on defense. He pressures the ball,” Mitchell said of Wagner postgame. “DJ just brings another energy to the court. I felt like we were very dead tonight from an energy standpoint.”
Without Wagner leading the team, Kentucky fell into some old habits. The team was shooting a barrage of 3s to start the season but shot only 17 from behind the arc on Saturday. Worse yet, they only made five of them, with the man whom many fans encourage to shoot them all, Antonio Reeves, taking just two.
Conversely, UNC Wilmington knocked down 11 of their 31 attempts from 3, after shooting 3-23 just two days ago in their loss to East Carolina.
While Wagner hasn’t been a prolific 3-point shooter this season, with him at the lead guard spot, his aggressive bursts to the basket are made possible because opponents can’t leave Sheppard and Reeves open behind the line. Sheppard has played phenomenally at the point, but relying on him to create his own shot late in the game on every possession is not a recipe for success.
In short, there was too much standing around, hoping Sheppard could beat his man off the dribble. That is something DJ Wagner is better suited to do, and when he does, shooters and cutters are much more apt to be active.
Next week will be an important one
If this game was supposed to be a get-right game in the sense of Bradshaw getting better on the court and Wagner getting better off, next Saturday is a game to get right back in the win column.
The game against Penn, with dozens of players’ friends and family in the stands, will be the last tune-up game (if we can even call them that anymore) before Kentucky takes on a slightly better team from North Carolina than the Seahawks: the Tarheels.
Kentucky has yet to play a game with its full complement of players, and they are going to have to figure out how everyone meshes moving forward. The more time on the court in real games they have, the better chance of long-term success they will have. And as we saw on Saturday, DJ Wagner is a vital part of making this team mesh.