Welcome to the party, Big Z.
After waiting for what seemed like an eternity to gain eligibility from the NCAA, 7-foot-2 freshman Zvonimir Ivišić made his college debut on Saturday and put on a clinic, going a perfect 4-for-4 from the field in the first half to provide a much-needed spark off the bench as the Kentucky Wildcats rolled over the Georgia Bulldogs 105-96 in Rupp Arena and Central Bank Center.
Georgia jumped out to an early 10-8 lead as Ivišić checked in at the scorer’s table at the 16:00 mark during the first TV timeout. The Wildcats promptly went on an 11-0 run that included an Antonio Reeves dunk and lay-up that resulted in a traditional three-point play. Reed Sheppard and Reeves then hit back-to-back 3-pointers, with the latter coming off a behind-the-back pass from Ivišić from the free-throw line to Reeves on the left wing as Kentucky led 19-10 with 13:17 remaining in the half.
The Croatian native finished the half with 11 points and 3 rebounds, to go with a couple of blocks, steals, and assists in the opening period. He finished with 13 points after a late dunk resulted in Kentucky hitting the century mark, although he was whistled for a technical foul for hanging on the rim, something the former Euro League standout will learn from.
Tre Mitchell led five players in double figures that also included Reeves, D.J. Wagner, Sheppard, and Ivišić. The Wildcats shot 14/25 from the 3-point line.
Here are the four things you should know from a solid victory to kick off the weekend.
Kentucky’s high-powered offense is among the nation’s best
Ranked No. 8 in this week’s AP Poll, Kentucky entered Saturday’s game as the best offensive team in college basketball with an average of 90.8 points per game, just edging out Arizona at 90.6 per game. Kentucky has now scored 90 points or better in four straight games and ranks fourth in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, at 121.4.
The Wildcats are also among the nation’s best in numerous other offensive categories:
- They’re playing at a fast pace, averaging just 15.3 seconds per possession which ranks 18th in the country.
- UK is logging 16.94 fast-break points per game. That mark is the seventh best in the nation.
- The Wildcats are averaging 10.1 made 3s per game. That is the 15th-best nationally.
- It’s 3-point percentage (.393) ranks 11th in the country.
- The Wildcats rank fourth in the country with a 1.89 assist-to-turnover ratio.
- Kentucky is dishing out 18.4 assists per game, ranking 11th in the country in that category. Four players have 51 or more assists (3.4 per game) thus far.
Antonio Reeves can beat you in multiple ways
Known for much of his career as a spot-up shooter, Reeves has expanded his offensive game to beat you from behind the 3-point arc or off the bounce as he scored multiple times on drives to the rim.
Reeves, who had 14 first-half points, is always a threat from deep but was fearless against the Bulldogs, taking the ball hard to the rim and finishing with dunks, reverse lay-ups, and off-balance runners. He has a quick first step and puts extra pressure on the defense when he’s able to penetrate or go baseline to create better scoring opportunities or find open teammates.
Reeves is also much improved on the defense end and has already improved his NBA stock tremendously over the first half of the season.
Big Z presents a new (good) challenge for John Calipari
It seemed only fitting that Zvonimir Ivišić would make his college debut on the day that the 1984 Final Four team was honored, a team that featured two 7-footers in the “Twin Towers” of Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin. With Ivišić finally in the mix for playing time, the Wildcats feature three 7-footers in Ivišić, Ugonna Onyenso, and Aaron Bradshaw.
The freshman big man has patiently waited his turn to hit the court after playing the waiting game, first with the university’s admissions process, and then with an ongoing investigation into his previous participation with SC Derby, a professional team in Montenegro. Finally, 172 days after first committing to coach John Calipari and the Wildcats, Big Z was blocking shots, hitting shots from deep, and making behind-the-back passes to teammates.
Calipari now has to figure out how to play a deep bench that now includes another outstanding shooter and passer to go along with his current rotation. Will he play two 7-footers this season? Are there enough minutes to keep everyone on the same page? It’s a good problem to have as the Wildcats are becoming a nightmare for SEC foes.
Still no sign of Adou Thiero
A key starter early in the season, Thiero missed his sixth straight game with back soreness with no public timeline for a return to the court. The sophomore is averaging 7.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game and recorded his first-career double-double with 16 points and 13 boards against No. 1 Kansas.
Thiero brings toughness on the defensive end and has been a key contributor on the boards during the absence of the three Kentucky bigs to start the season. Although the rotation has expanded with Ivišić’s presence, the Wildcats still need a healthy Thiero to find success down the stretch, especially on the defensive end.
That was evident as Kentucky was outscored 28-9 down the stretch of this one but still won. Imagine what this team can do if Thiero comes back and this defense improves.
The Wildcats, 14-3 (4-1), return to action on Tuesday night at South Carolina.
Now, what was your big takeaway(s) tonight? Let us know in the comments section!