Following a humbling loss to Tennessee on Saturday night, the Big Blue Nation needed a pick-me-up, and the Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team provided that in their preseason exhibition against Missouri Western on Sunday night, winning 56-38.
It is important to note that Defending National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe did not play due to a minor knee procedure that he had done earlier this month.
However, he was on the court with warmups on, dribbling a ball on the baseline before the game, and is anticipated to be ready for the season opener on November 7th.
With that said, let’s get to the game.
Calipari elected to start four seniors (Fredrick, Reeves, Toppin, Wheeler) and a sophomore (Collins) on Sunday night, which is not typical for a Calipari team.
Kentucky started the game slowly on the offensive end, which continued throughout the half, scoring just 26 points on 11/27 shooting.
However, Kentucky did play well on the defensive end - albeit against inferior competition - holding Missouri Western State to just 18 points.
In the second half, the offense improved, despite losing Sahvir Wheeler to injury, and did enough to win going away.
Now, let’s take a closer look at Kentucky’s performance.
Sahvir Wheeler Injury
The biggest story to come from this one was the injury to Kentucky starting point guard Sahvirf Wheeler, who went down with a leg injury in the second half and had to be helped off the floor (read more about it here).
While Wheeler certainly has his limitations, Kentucky is a better team with him healthy. This would be a brutal loss if he has an extended absence, so hopefully, this turns out to be something relatively minor.
For the previous two seasons, Jacob Toppin has provided an important spark with his ability to run the floor, rebound, and defend at a high level.
With his return, there has been a strong belief that this could be Toppin’s breakout season.
Throughout the offseason, the self-confidence was very apparent, and in the Bahamas, he debuted his much-improved offensive game and was the team’s second-leading scorer (16.8 ppg).
On Sunday night, he continued to show that he will be a versatile and key offensive weapon for the Wildcats this season, scoring an efficient 10 points (4/6 FG, 1/3 3P) in the first half alone but missed his only two shots in the second half.
Kentucky’s last addition to this season’s roster was Ugonna Onyenso, a 2023 reclassification from Nigeria. Standing 7-foot tall, with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, Onyenso was a four-star recruit and was tabbed one of the best rim protectors in the country.
Unfortunately, Onyenso did not get to play in the Bahamas but joined the team in late August.
Despite limited time with the team, the 4-star freshman impressed in his first action as a Kentucky Wildcat, blocking a total of five shots in just 15 minutes.
When Onyenso first joined the team, it was unsure if he would contribute this year. At this point, I think it is entirely possible, if not probable, that he will be a part of the frontcourt rotation.
As mentioned before, Oscar Tshiebwe did not play tonight, therefore the offense did not have its typical makeup. With that said, without him, the Wildcat offense looks to have a long way to go.
For the game, Kentucky scored just 56 points, the lowest amount of points scored by UK in an exhibition in the Calipari era.
Despite the offensive inconsistency, there were some positives including CJ Fredrick’s three-point shooting (4/6 3P) and the transition offense (20 total fastbreak points).
As for the latter, this team has the potential to be elite defensively, which will create some offensive opportunities. Expect Calipari to continue his mantra of coaching defense first and allowing the offense to develop over the course of the season.
Yet, when Tshiebwe returns, he will attract a lot of attention, and it will open the floor for the rest of the team. Expect the offense to look much more reminiscent of the team that scored at least 98 points in four games in the Bahamas.
There was some good and bad tonight, but Kentucky got a double-digit win, and we can continue to laugh at Louisville Cardinals losing their exhibition.