Live. Breathe. Blue. Kentucky Basketball - Random Basketball

by Bill Crockett (Lexington, KY)
Sheppard, Dillingham, and Wagner shine; ‘Cats play random
Photo Credit: Donna Gray Sheppard, Dillingham, and Wagner shine; ‘Cats play random
Photo Credit: Donna Gray

Sheppard, Dillingham, and Wagner shine; ‘Cats play random No. 16 Kentucky made a huge statement during its lopsided 86-46 win against New Mexico State in Monday’s season opener at Rupp Arena. Injuries to a couple of key 7-footers—McDonald’s All-American Aaron Bradshaw and returning big Ugonna Onyenso—coupled with Big Z’s lingering eligibility issue, forced Calipari to utilize a four-guard lineup versus the Aggies. Featuring 6’9” Tre Mitchell at the five, Calipari turned innovator once again and introduced the art of random basketball.

A lot of questions surrounded the Wildcats entering Monday night. No one really knew what to expect from this young group. Listing the ‘Cats as a 15.5 point favorite, even Vegas had doubts. Calipari’s current stable of five-star talent checks all the right boxes. With the additions of Bradshaw, Onyenso, and Big Z looming, UK fans are chomping at the bit. No other program in the country features the kind of length those three players provide. Calipari expects Bradshaw to return at least two weeks before Onyenso. And at this point, it’s anyone’s guess on Big Z.

Criticized in the past for micromanaging players on offense, Calipari emphasized “random basketball” during his opening statement at the press conference. “You know, we played random basketball the whole second half, ran two or three things, everything else was random,” Calipari explained. “And random is we are spacing the court and we are playing off of one another.” Calipari further elaborated on the

wide spacing and actions that materialize from his combinations of two and three guys reacting to one another—and in a nutshell, that’s random basketball.

Speaking of random basketball, offensively, this group doesn’t force the issue and commit a lot of senseless turnovers. For the first time in recent memory, the Wildcats have multiple players who can put the ball on the floor consistently without being careless with the basketball. That’s been a major issue the past couple of years, and it all comes down to guard play. Calipari finally has a roster suited for his patented dribble drive offense, and whether he calls it random basketball or dribble drive, this team is going to put a lot of points on the board.

Anyone who speculated that former North Laurel standout Reed Sheppard would never get off the bench at UK can be quiet now. An instant fan favorite, Sheppard showed flashes of brilliance during his Wildcat debut. He provided an instant spark on both ends of the floor as soon as he entered the game. Sheppard just doesn’t make many mistakes when he’s on the court. He’s a solid player who possesses all of the intangibles. Defensively, Sheppard probably has the quickest hands of anyone on the team and his on-ball defense stood out on the perimeter.

Sheppard finished with 12 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks. That’s one heckuva stat line on opening night for a freshman. “I think I was most impressed with just how the team played,” Sheppard told me afterward. “You know, first game, you never know what’s going to happen, but I think we all came out and stuck to the game plan, played together as a team, kept fighting, talked, and shared the ball—I think we had like 17 assists and 6 turnovers—And that’s really good for a first game, especially the way that we played.”

Missing three players, Kentucky’s performance should send a shudder throughout the rest of college basketball. Highly touted recruit DJ Wagner pressed at times on offense when his first couple of shots didn’t fall. Even though Wagner struggled from deep (1-of-5), he finished with 13 points, assists, and 3 steals. Defensively, he shined. “In practice, we’re a team full of competitors and that’s how Rob, Reed, and I have played since we got here,” Wagner shared with me. “That’s how we play, just to be aggressive from watching film and listening to our coaches.”

Kentucky’s perimeter defense hasn’t looked this good in years. Credit the competitive nature of Dillingham, Wagner, and Sheppard. It’s going to be hard for anyone to counter their quickness and ability to pressure the ball. Dillingham and Wagner both play with a chip on their shoulder and don’t hesitate to let their opponent know it. UK’s guards aren’t going to shy away from contact in the lane on offense. Make no mistake about it, this team is one big away from having all the pieces necessary to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.