Kentucky proves it's among college basketball's best -- and will only get better

On3 imageby:Jack Pilgrim11/28/23

It’s hard to make a sea of 20K diehards stop on a dime, a roar immediately turning into a gasp, followed by deafening silence. Kentucky star freshman DJ Wagner hit the deck on a drive to the basket and struggled to get up, ultimately limping back to the bench and later to the locker room. He would be declared out for the remainder of the game.

The Wildcats closed out the half on an 8-0 run to take a 42-37 lead, but how could they finish the game without the guy who had finally emerged as the team’s go-to bucket-getter, scoring 50 in his last two games? Against the nation’s eighth-ranked team, one known for putting up points in a hurry, particularly from three?

Well, Reed Sheppard is how.

Kentucky crushes a legitimate top-10 team

It’s hard to even put into words what the start of the second half looked like and the magic that it was. Five turned into 10, then 15, then 20 to as many as 26. In a battle of offensive juggernauts, Kentucky threw the knockout punch coming out of the break and proceeded to beat Miami to a pulp.

Seriously, you’d have no idea the Hurricanes were undefeated and first in the ACC, a team scoring 89 points per game on 52.4% shooting and an absurd 45.8% from three. They had five players averaging at least 11 points per game, four scoring 16 or more. The Cats managed to hold that number to a whopping two — 20 for Norchad Omier and 19 for Wooga Poplar. That’s it. There’s the list, no one else above six.

Reed Sheppard is the team’s best player

On the other side, you have Sheppard saving the day with 21 points — 13 in the second half — on 8-13 shooting and 5-9 from three to go with five rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block in 30 minutes. Once again, the nation’s leader in plus/minus led the team with a ridiculous +35. It’s just hilarious at this point, play after play after play made by Laurel County’s finest. Need a big shot? It’s Sheppard. A stop? It’s Sheppard. A stable hand to take care of the basketball? You guessed it, it’s Sheppard. The game changes when he enters the game, as evident by Kentucky’s +17 second-half point differential — which also happens to be Sheppard’s plus/minus after the break.

An all-around effort elsewhere

Rob Dillingham was Sheppard’s complementary spark in the backcourt with Wagner out, going for 10 points of his own in the second half– all highlight-worthy. Jim Larrañaga singled out those two as clear “NBA guys,” and it continues to be obvious for both. Dillingham in particular dashed his way to the bucket for soft jelly-scoop scores and dagger 3-pointers with snarls and ‘too little’ hand gestures to follow. He closed out the win with 12 points overall to go with nine assist, five rebounds, two steals and zero turnovers. He’s finished in double figures with at least three assists in every game this season, just nine turnovers on the year. What?!

Antonio Reeves put up another efficient 18 points on 7-12 shooting while Tre Mitchell did Tre Mitchell things, finishing with 14 points, a career-high seven assists, five rebounds, two blocks and a steal. Justin Edwards closed out double-figure scorers with 11 on 5-7 overall, highlighted by a few tough and electric finishes around the basket. And he didn’t fumble the ball on any drives or catches near the rim! It’s the little things with this team.

What do you even say at this point?

Just look at the big-picture numbers. 26 assists on 37 made shots with just eight turnovers, one combined between 62 minutes of Sheppard, Dillingham and Wagner. That’s just silly. And the Wildcats didn’t even go nuclear from three in this one — for their own standards, at least — including a 2-10 start in the first half before closing things out 9-21 overall (still 42.9%).

Even John Calipari struggled to describe the performance after skimming his way through the box score at the podium.

“Wow. Pretty good.”

The fact of the matter is Miami is a really good basketball team capable of beating you in a lot of ways.

“Defensively, we were saying make the three hard, make them take tough twos,” Calipari said. “They can beat you with threes. And they also beat you if you turn it over, because they finish unbelievably at the rim.”

Miami is good, but Kentucky is better

Kentucky is just better. And the Wildcats are better than most teams in college basketball. How do you slow down this offense, which is now averaging 94.4 points on 52% overall, 43% from three and 73% at the line with a 21-8 assist-to-turnover ratio, six players scoring in double figures on a nightly basis — and Adou Thiero isn’t a slouch, either, putting up 8.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per contest in his own right? Oh, and there is more coming in the form of a 7-1 shot-making unicorn, who could make his debut as early as Saturday vs. UNC Wilmington.

That’s where your shot blocking, rim running and rebounding comes from. If you’re gonna poke holes in this group, that’s where you go. And it’s about to get fixed with Aaron Bradshaw.

Ask Larrañaga how to slow down this group. He’d certainly like to know — and he’s coached back-to-back Elite Eight and Final Four runs, respectively.

“Kentucky was terrific tonight. Very explosive, and we couldn’t really defend anyway,” he said. “Their size, athletic ability, shooting ability. You know, they shoot 42 percent from three, 59 percent overall and we just couldn’t guard.”

And playing inside Rupp Arena certainly didn’t help, Big Blue Nation crushing any chance for Miami to flip the momentum. The Hurricanes tried briefly with a 13-0 run in the first half, but that was essentially the only time the road team had a slight shot. Kentucky mostly controlled this thing from start to finish.

Are you seeing a theme here? I’d get used to it.

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2024-02-29