It’s been a long time coming for No. 2. Broken feet are often death sentences for athletic 7-footers with NBA aspirations. Factor in offseason speculation regarding outside influences pushing and pulling him in different directions, there was skepticism Aaron Bradshaw would ever play a game for Kentucky — another Shaedon Sharpe, many thought.
And then five minutes into the Wildcats’ matchup vs. UNC Wilmington, Bradshaw jogged to the scorer’s table and checked into the game for his debut. For the first time in a Kentucky uniform, the Rahway, N.J. native felt the roar from Big Blue Nation, a moment all basketball players grow up hoping to experience. It made all of the rehab and outside clutter worthwhile.
Bradshaw one of many ‘news’ for Kentucky
John Calipari expected he’d play 10-15 minutes, he got 13. And he contributed, finishing with three points, two rebounds and one block as a plus-11 overall.
It was also the afternoon Kentucky debuted its new bright-and-shiny court, one featuring a vivid blue and the state’s outline stretched from free-throw line to free-throw line. You’d be lying if you thought shouting “Reed Sheppard from Bracken County” wasn’t an absolute blast.
We even got our first look at Zvonimir Ivisic warming up with the team in a regulation game — he’s been sick or injured all season. It wasn’t much, but again, it was something new.
Needless to say, a lot was going on here. It didn’t help that DJ Wagner was declared out with an ankle injury ahead of the opening tip, listed as day-to-day. The hope was to let him heal with a nice break in the schedule, giving him nearly two weeks off between the Miami and Penn matchups, assuming he’s able to give it a go in Philadelphia next Saturday.
That thrust Reed Sheppard into the lineup for his first career start — another ‘new’ for the Wildcats. And you could sense some shakiness right away with some early turnovers and defensive slip-ups for not just Sheppard, but the entire starting group. The Seahawks jumped out to a quick 5-0 lead, which spread to 13-4, then as many as 14 at 38-24 in the first half before the Cats got it back to single digits before intermission.
Kentucky righted the ship temporarily coming out of the break, taking its first lead at the 14:44 mark and pushing ahead by as many as six. The Wildcats had broken through in most of those moments this season, but not this one. UNCW quickly retook the lead with 10:46 to go and never looked back, ultimately winning by a final score of 80-73. When it came time to hit shots and come up with stops, it was the Seahawks finishing the job, not the home favorite.
“It was a game that went back and forth, the crowd was into it, but our guys never wavered,” UNCW head coach Takayo Siddle said. “They hit us with some haymakers and we responded with our own haymakers. We finished the game off like veterans and I am very proud of our guys.”
Where did random basketball go?
That was the story of the day: uncharacteristic basketball from Kentucky. 14 assists compared to 13 turnovers for a team that entered the day with the best assist/turnover ratio in the country. Ball movement was a serious issue. That led to ugly possessions and bad shots late in the shot clock. And when the Wildcats did pass the ball, they were sloppy and lacked purpose. That limited a team that ranked third in both 3-point percentage (42.6) and 3-pointers per game (11.9) to just five makes on 29.4% from deep.
This team prides itself on random basketball. They got away from what they do best.
“We didn’t play the same way. We held the ball. Everybody’s trying to make a play,” John Calipari said after the loss. “You say, ‘Well, why didn’t you get up more threes?’ Because everybody who caught it held it. We had to get threes where I had to run a play to get a three. That’s not who we are.”
Turnstile defense and a lost battle on the glass
And that wasn’t even the team’s biggest downfall. That came on the other side of the floor, giving up straight-line drives to the basket and clean looks from three. The Seahawks only had eight assists and still turned the ball over 12 times. But they hit open shots — 11 threes — and took what the defense gave them on the ball. Unfortunately, Kentucky gave them essentially whatever they wanted, and it led to a mind-boggling loss.
“This was St. Joe’s again where we couldn’t stand in front of the ball,” Calipari added. “… We’ve got time between games, we’ve got to keep working on the importance of staying in front of your man and making him score through your chest. We just keep opening up the hips and they shoot layups. There are games where you’re not going to make shots. You’ve got to rebound and defend.”
Kentucky didn’t do either of those things, outrebounded by a team whose two tallest players are 6-9 — they combined for just three of the team’s 40 rebounds anyway — and giving up gimme after gimme. After digging themselves in early holes for much of the season, the Wildcats finally got burned.
“Sometimes you’ve got to stick your hand in the fire and get burned to know. I don’t like this feeling,” Calipari said. “I was saying in huddles, ‘Are you having fun? I’m not having fun.'”
Time to take a deep breath
I’ll answer Calipari’s question for him: no, it was not fun. UNC Wilmington came in as KenPom’s 145th-best team in college basketball, one coming off a loss to East Carolina and suffered a 30-point beatdown against Appalachian State in late November. You win that game if you’re Kentucky.
That being said, now isn’t the time for hot takes and jumping ship. UNCW was picked to finish second in the CAA and is actually a projected NCAA Tournament team. And go figure, this opposing coach has had some wild luck inside Rupp Arena — he was on the Gardner-Webb team that beat Kentucky under Billy Gillispie back in 2007.
“My message was ‘believe.’ Anything can happen,” he said. “Little Gardner-Webb came in here back in 2007 and we had the same outcome.”
But this isn’t that Gillispie-coached team. This is a group that led top-ranked Kansas by 14 in the second half and beat the snot out of No. 8 Miami quite literally four days ago. The Wildcats reverted, absolutely, but we’ve seen this team play truly elite basketball. That didn’t just disappear overnight and there is plenty of time to get things figured out.
Basketball happens. Now it’s time to make sure it doesn’t happen like that again the rest of the season.