The 2023-24 basketball season is officially underway, as the No. 16 Kentucky Wildcats defeated New Mexico State 86-46 on Monday night in Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center.
The victory sealed Kentucky’s 100th win in season openers and kept UK Coach John Calipari undefeated in home openers during his tenure.
Sophomore Adou Thiero scored the first two points of the season after crashing the boards and getting a stick back on a missed lay-up attempt in traffic by D.J. Wagner. A pair of three-pointers by Antonio Reeves helped the Wildcats get out to a 23-15 lead at the 8:10 mark, and a Tre Mitchell basket at the end of the half gave Kentucky a 37-29 halftime lead.
Kentucky committed just one turnover in the first half, an impressive trend we saw in the exhibition season that’s already translating into the regular season. The passing was crisp throughout the game, as this team is already playing team basketball like you’d see from a veteran squad.
The Wildcats turned up the heat in the second half and only allowed six points through the first nine minutes after forcing five turnovers since halftime to go with eight steals on the night. A 6-0 run ultimately gave Kentucky a 54-35 lead as the Wildcats cruised to the victory. The Wildcats finished with five players in double figures.
Kentucky ended up outscoring the Aggies 49-17 in the second half in what turned into a dominating first win of the season.
Here are the four things you need to know from a great opening-season victory for John Calipari and Co.
No. 1-ranked freshmen class starts with a bang
After getting settled in against Georgetown College and Kentucky State during the exhibition season, members of Kentucky’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class - D.J. Wagner, Rob Dillingham, Justin Edwards, Reed Sheppard - all had solid debuts in the win.
Wagner and Dillingham were active on the defensive end, and Edwards showed off his offensive skills, scoring both inside and out. Sheppard also looked at home in Rupp Arena and provided instant offense off the bench. Dillingham looks to be an underrated passer, and all four freshmen that played significant minutes have the ability to fill it up from three-point range.
Edwards was recently named to the Preseason Naismith Watch List, an early list of the projected Top 50 players in the nation who are expected to compete for the Naismith Trophy Men’s Player of the Year this season. The Wildcats are still hopeful that Aaron Bradshaw returns soon as the schedule gets tougher beginning next week.
Tough layup, D.J. Wagner pic.twitter.com/V8TvLZG9lI— Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) November 7, 2023
Kentucky is hard to stop in transition
Kentucky’s best offense may be its defense as the Wildcat guards always seem to get a hand on the ball and are ready to push up the court to get easy baskets. Playing Wagner and Dillingham together kicks things up a notch as the freshman guards have the speed and quickness to make things happen on both ends of the floor. When you add Reed Sheppard to the mix, you add blocked shots and his own quick hands on the defense, to keep opponents on their heels.
Although the half-court offense is still a work in progress, the Cats have more than enough firepower to pressure the ball to get easy baskets in the full court.
Bench-scoring could be UK’s secret weapon
Even without the three seven-footers (Bradshaw, Ugonna Onyenso, and Zvonimir Ivisic), one of Kentucky’s strengths this season may be points off the bench, as Dillingham and Sheppard can get you points in a hurry.
Sheppard, last year’s Kentucky Mr. Basketball, scored his first points in a Wildcat uniform after a steal and two-handed dunk on an assist from Wagner at the 6:04 mark in the first half. He also hit a three-pointer in the first half and connected on three free throws after being fouled behind the arc. Sheppard and Dillingham combined for 29 points.
Freshman Jordan Burks also got solid minutes, running the floor, playing solid defense, and getting to the ball as a rebounder. Once Kentucky is back to full strength, you can expect Calipari to have plenty of depth, with as many as 11 guys fighting in practice for playing time.
Adou Thiero gets better with each game
Sophomore Adou Thiero easily gets the nod as the “most improved” player after seeing limited minutes as a freshman. This season has been a much different story, as the 6-foot-8 swingman is now a starter and proved to be a relentless rebounder against a bigger NM State team. He also showed the ability to either get in the lane to score or earn a trip to the free-throw line.
Tre Mitchell struggled offensively against NM State, but Reeves hit some big threes in the opening half to create some separation from a pesky NM State team that was 4-for-13 from the three-point line in the first half. This veteran trio will have to step up and provide even greater intensity as we get into road games in the SEC.
Kentucky, 1-0, hosts Texas A&M-Commerce on Friday before setting its sights on No. 1-ranked Kansas next Tuesday at Chicago’s United Center. The Wildcats are slated to play 13 games against 10 NCAA Tournament teams from a season ago and 10 teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25.
Now, let’s celebrate win No. 1!