Coming off one of the most memorable regular season games in recent history, the impressive debut of Zvonimir Ivisic, the Kentucky Wildcats will turn look toward a road game against the South Carolina Gamecocks, another team that has outperformed expectations.
Finishing 4-14 in SEC play last season, the Gamecocks were selected to finish last in the SEC in the preseason.
But fast-forward to today, and they are 15-3 overall with a 3-2 SEC mark. Outside of a blowout loss to Alabama, their other two losses have come each by five points.
Columbia is also a place where Kentucky has struggled under John Calipari. With just a 5-4 record, the Wildcats are just one win over .500 in Columbia and have lost two of the last three on the road.
Kentucky fell at home to these Gamecocks a year ago thanks to 26 points from star guard Meechie Johnson, so it’s safe to say defending him will be a big key to winning this game for the road Cats.
While the Gamecocks have one more win than Kentucky, their NET is just 61st right now. While good enough to make this a Quad I game for the Wildcats, it would, at best, put the Gamecocks on the NCAA Tournament bubble, so they really need a win like this to put themselves on the right side of the bubble.
The Wildcats may have the better roster, but this is shaping up to be the third straight war of a game they play on the road in SEC play, so don’t expect this one to be easy by any stretch.
Here’s what to watch for when Kentucky faces South Carolina for a Tuesday night primetime affair.
Tempo Tempo Tempo
When the Cats debuted their new and improved offense, it was clear this offense was most effective when playing fast. As the season has progressed, John Calipari’s bunch have continued to play faster and faster.
As it stands, Kentucky is top 10 in possessions per game at nearly 78 per game. That is the fastest among all Power Six teams.
Their next opponent, South Carolina, plays among the slowest paces in Power Six basketball at 68 possessions per game. It’s helped them prevent every opponent thus far from reaching 80 points.
Tuesday night will be a major clash of pace.
Fortunately, Kentucky has found success in speeding up their opponents nearly all season. For reference, the most points the Gamecocks have allowed this season is 77. Kentucky has scored more than that in all but one game this season.
Stay in Front of the Ball
The biggest complaint of this Kentucky team has been their defense, specifically staying in front of the ball. While they are improving, it’s still not where it needs to be. South Carolina has multiple guards that can take advantage of that, highlighted by Meechie Johnson and Ta’Lon Cooper.
Johnson is an aggressive guard who will look for his shot, averaging nearly 17 points per game. Cooper is one of the best facilitators in the SEC, averaging more than four assists per game. Both will force you to respect them inside and out, but Kentucky needs to put a heavy emphasis on limiting the drives.
Big Z Part II?
When it was announced that Zvonimir ‘Big Z’ Ivisic had been cleared by the NCAA, there was little doubt that Calipari would put him in the game. However, no one expected that debut, not even himself.
“I was as surprised as all of you,” Ivisic told the media after putting up 13 points five rebounds, three blocks, two assists, two steals, a flagrant foul, two turnovers, and a technical foul in just 16 minutes, as he made sure to log just about every possible statistic imaginable. Kentucky also went on an 11-0 run in the first half with Ivisic on the court.
As well as he played, it was clear that Ivisic was playing out of position at times due to nerves and still needed to get some game conditioning. However, his footwork, defensive instincts, and fluidity were all apparent. His versatility will certainly earn him some playing time, but how much will that be with a loaded roster remains to be seen.
With Ivisic now in the lineup, Kentucky is just one player away from a complete roster, Adou Thiero, who has been dealing with back spasms and growing pains since late December, but it sounds like he could return very soon, which would be a major boost to Kentucky’s defense and rebounding.
Opposing Players to Watch
G Meechie Johnson, 6-2, 184 lbs
- 16.7 PPG (7th in SEC)
- 2.4 APG
- 37% 3P
F B.J. Mack, 6-8, 270 lbs
- 13.8 PPG
- 5.3 RPG
G Ta’Lon Cooper, 6-4, 200 lbs
- 9.3 PPG
- 4.5 RPG
- 4.3 APG (3rd in SEC)
- 41.7% 3P (11th in SEC)
Time: 7 PM ET on January 23rd
Location: Colonial Life Arena in Columbia (SC)
TV Channel: The SEC Network will have TV coverage of this game.
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the UK radio call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
Replay: WatchESPN and the SEC Network (check local listings).
Odds: DraftKings Sportsbook has Kentucky as a 4-point favorite with an over/under of 156.5. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Kentucky a 63.5% chance of achieving victory in Columbia. EvanMiya gives them a 63.8 chance at the win. Bart Torvik has it at 56%, while KenPom has it at 61%.
Predictions: Bart Torvik picks Kentucky to win in a one-score game, 79-77. Haslametrics and EvanMiya have the Cats winning 81-76 and 79-75, respectively. KenPom is going with an 80-77 victory, Kentucky!
What will happen Tuesday night when Kentucky takes on the Gamecocks in Columbia? Let us know how you see this one playing out in the comments section!