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Kentucky cruises past Illinois State: 4 things to know and postgame cheers

A balanced scoring effort led by Antonio Reeves against his former team helped the Cats get a win to end the year.

Justin Edwards Dylan Ballard - A Sea Of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats beat the Illinois State Redbirds on Friday night in Lexington by a score of 96-70.

The Cats got off to a hot start, but so did the Redbirds. However, Illinois State couldn't keep up as Kentucky took a 45-30 lead into the break. After the half, Kentucky continued its offensive onslaught as they extended the lead to as many as 28 points halfway through the second half.

The defense continues to leave a lot to be desired, but the name of the game is scoring more than the other team. The good news is that this team is really good at doing that.

Next up, SEC play opens up as the Cats travel to Gainesville to take on the Florida Gators next Saturday afternoon.

Here are four things to know from win No. 10.

Edwards may be breaking out

Justin Edwards hasn't had quite as good of a start as the rest of the freshman Cats, but it appears that the game is finally slowing down for him. And this might just be the start of a breakout.

Depending on who you asked, many people said Edwards would be Kentucky’s best freshman this season as he was the projected No. 1 draft pick prior to this season. However, the season hasn't exactly gone as planned for Edwards...yet.

Edwards has had his moments, but he’s been inconsistent, takes plays off, has shown limited athleticism and shooting, and his infamous defensive ability has been below par. I’m not sure I could watch a 6’8 small forward get blocked by the rim again or get the ball ripped away from him again.

It’s clear that Edwards needed some time to adjust. He has made some good hustle plays this season, but his on-ball defense, which was heralded coming into UK, has been suspect. In this one, he looked much more focused on both ends of the court.

He’ll never be a volume scorer, but he doesn't need to be. The Cats need a lockdown wing defender, who can hit the occasional jump shot and take advantage of his size. I expect Edwards to slowly inch closer and closer to his potential as the season progresses.

Taking care of the basketball

One of the most surprising things about this team is their ability to take care of the basketball. Usually, freshmen-laden teams struggle with turnovers, but that hasn't been the case at all for this squad. On the season, they're averaging single-digit turnovers per game.

Even more impressive is this team’s willingness to share the basketball. This is a team full of big personalities and future pros, so it’s somewhat shocking how well they've meshed and how quickly. They’re assisting on close to 60% of made field goals this year.

To put into perspective just how good this team is at protecting and sharing the ball, look no further than the first half as a perfect example. Kentucky turned the ball over on its first possession of the game but didn't commit a single turnover from that point on as they racked up 13 assists on 19 made baskets in the first half.

The Cats finished this game with 23 assists on 36 made field goals with only five turnovers. That’s winning basketball.

Reeves continues impressive season

Antonio Reeves has been nothing short of awesome this season. Fresh off dropping 30 points against the Louisville Cardinals last week, Reeves exploded again—this time, against his former team.

Reeves is second in the SEC in scoring, which is incredibly impressive on a team this talented. He’s clearly improved significantly from last season and isn't lacking any confidence. I’m not sure anyone expected him to be THIS good.

The reason for the increase in scoring is partly due to Reeves’ personal improvement but it also can be attributed to the players around him. As mentioned above, this team shares the ball extremely well, and that leads to a lot of open shots. Additionally, Kentucky is playing a lot faster, which leads to more possessions.

He’s also not the sole scoring threat/shooter like he was last season. There’s DJ Wager, Reed Sheppard, Tre Mitchell, Rob Dillingham, etc. The team as a whole is shooting over 40% from three on the season. Teams can’t just run Reeves off the three-point line because he’ll take it to the basket or kick it to someone else for a deep ball.

As good as the freshmen have been/are, the veterans—Reeves and Mitchell—are imperative to Kentucky’s success.

The bigs are situational

We talked for what felt like weeks about how important it was for Kentucky to get their big men back. For the first seven games, the Cats had more than 21 feet of big men sitting on the bench.

Aaron Bradshaw was the first to return, and he’s played fairly well. His ability to stretch the floor and run it at 7’1 is special, but his lean frame limits. His motor doesn't stop, but he tends to be overaggressive to a fault.

He also doesn't quite understand positioning for rebounds or blocking shots, yet. He’s young. His ceiling is sky-high, but he’s not automatically Kentucky’s best option simply because he’s tall.

Ugonna Onyenso was the second big to return, and he’s a completely different player (in a good way) than Bradshaw. Unlike Bradshaw, Onyenso is raw offensively and provides next to nothing, except the occasional offensive rebound and dunk. However, on the defensive end, the shot-blocking ability is second nature.

He’s blocked nearly one-third of two-point shot attempts in limited time since his return. Bradshaw’s a shot blocker because he’s 7’1—he’s not the most instinctive, but blocks shots because he’s so tall—whereas, Onyenso does it with ease.

In this game, and the last, Bradshaw just didn't ever seem comfortable. With Onyenso, defense travels, and he has played much better the last couple of games, despite limited time. The Cats need Bradshaw, but the bigs on this team will be very situational from game to game.

What will Big Z provide (assuming he ever gets cleared)? That remains to be seen. The rotation may be set at this point, but an extra body never hurts, especially if he can show some unicorn-like ability.

This was a great way to end 2023, especially with Adou Thiero sitting out due to an injury. Now, things really start to get going with conference play opening up.

Happy New Year! Go Cats!