CHICAGO — Kentucky played with house money Tuesday night at the Champions Classic. Nobody would’ve been shocked if the Wildcats got run off the court by No. 1 Kansas just over a week into the season, all things considered. This was one of the youngest teams in the country trying to topple one of the oldest teams. None of UK’s three 7-footers was available to combat 7-foot-2 All-American Hunter Dickinson, who did exactly what everyone expected against a small-ball lineup, delivering a preposterous 27-point, 21-rebound performance.
This was all, obviously, the recipe for a rout. And it almost was, only somehow John Calipari’s undersized bunch of newbies were the ones threatening to deliver the beatdown. Seventeenth-ranked Kentucky led by a dozen in the first half and by 14 points with 16 minutes to go. It was all so shocking as to feel a bit like a fever dream, watching the 64-year-old coach let his guys run and gun again after a few years of white-knuckling the offensive steering wheel.
That is why, while it is no doubt disappointing that the Cats ultimately managed to blow that lead and lose, 89-84, and although there were some player performances and coaching decisions that merit further dissection, it was hard to leave the United Center feeling anything other than Kentucky might really be onto something here. That was the most fun it’s been to watch the Wildcats play in a very long time.
“We’ve got to get better at finishing, but a young team learns that,” said Calipari, who watched a six-point lead evaporate over the final three-and-a-half minutes. “What I was proud of is they fought. That’s a huge team, and they had to fight to survive. We got down early, and it looked like what everybody said would happen: We’re going to get smashed. Then all of a sudden, we’re up.”
Kansas scored the first nine points of the game and led 11-3 after five minutes. That’s when Calipari did what few other coaches can: pulled a pair of five-star freshmen, Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard, off his bench and let them lead a dizzying blitz that left the arena rocking and Kansas reeling. Where fellow freshmen DJ Wagner and Justin Edwards looked rattled, Dillingham and Sheppard came in throwing haymakers.
“None of us are happy that we lost,” Calipari said, “but to come in this environment, with everything that goes with this, the bells and whistles, and they perform like they did, I couldn’t ask for much more. They want to win. We’ve got dogs. You can’t be young like we are, can’t win with a group like that, unless they are dogs. Like, they’ll battle, they’ll bite, they’re not gonna just give up and let you do what you want.”
Sheppard checked in with 14:34 remaining in the first half, UK down six, and over the next four minutes had a steal, assist, steal, steal, 3-pointer, steal and 3-pointer, and gave the Cats their first lead. Then he got his second foul and sat for the final 8:50 of the first half and first 4:20 of the second half, a Calipari decision worth revisiting.
Dillingham then took his supernova turn, splashing four consecutive 3-pointers and assisting on a fifth in the span of barely two minutes, at which point Bill Self took a timeout to regroup and Calipari strangely stuck Dillingham on the bench. If one wanted to nitpick an otherwise enormously encouraging third game of the season, Sheppard and Dillignham’s usage would be the place to start.
“They came in the game and changed all the energy,” sophomore Adou Thiero said. “That’s how the whole game flipped.”
Kentucky still led by nine with 14:35 to go in the game when Calipari subbed out those two and inserted McDonald’s All-Americans Wagner and Edwards. Kansas promptly launched a 13-2 run in under four minutes to take its first lead since midway through the first half.
“I’m playing the game as it’s unfolding,” Calipari explained afterward. “I’m not even thinking of somebody’s ego at that point. They’re going to have to grow up fast to be here.”
The thing is, though, Dillingham and Sheppard each logged only 16 minutes Tuesday and combined for 31 points on 10-of-17 shooting. They hit 7 of 9 3-pointers and had six steals. Wagner and Edwards combined for just five points on 1-of-18 shooting, playing 25 and 29 minutes, respectively. Calipari cannot afford to have any sacred cows right now, letting the top-rated recruits and draft prospects play through long, mistake-filled stretches while benching backups with the hot hand.
To his credit, Calipari did sit Wagner and Edwards at key points down the stretch and put the ball in Dillingham and Sheppard’s hands in some critical moments. Dillingham also managed to foul out in his limited playing time, which hurt his cause.
It didn’t help either that Reeves, a super senior, scored 24 points in his first 31 minutes, then missed all five of his 3-point tries over the final 2:39 — and missed seven straight overall to finish 3 of 17 from deep. Or that Tre Mitchell, another super senior who played nearly the full 40 minutes as an undersized stretch-five battling the mammoth Dickinson, could barely lift his arms by the end and bricked four of his last six free throws.
“I’ve got to do a really good job of showing them how to finish games, and then part of that is who should be in when you’re finishing the game,” Calipari said. “I’ve got to figure that out. Like, if you’re going to miss five straight shots at the end of a game, you can’t be in then.”
That sounds, at least, like a man who sees a problem and plans to fix it. Like, just maybe, a retirement-age coach who is not yet done evolving. Kentucky’s offensive approach so far this season suggests that. The Wildcats attempted 24 3-pointers in the first half Tuesday, more than they took in 27 of 34 entire games last season. They played five-out almost all game against Kansas and launched 38 3s in 40 minutes. Calipari has never had a team average more than 20 3-point attempts per game.
“I like their team,” Self said. “To me, they’re hard to guard with Tre playing the five. But when they get (Aaron) Bradshaw back, or their other bigs, that’s going to be a hard team to deal with. Cal’s got a really good bunch.”
That’s the other thing everyone left Chicago saying about Kentucky: Just wait until they get some size. Bradshaw, a McDonald’s All-American freshman, and Ugonna Onyenso, a promising sophomore, both look like they’re inching toward a return from offseason foot surgery. Kentucky remains hopeful that 7-2 Croatian import Zvonimir Ivisic will be cleared by the NCAA any day now. So what then?
Score another point for Evolving Cal. “The good news is they’re basketball players, too, they’re not just big guys. They can pass it, they can shoot it, they can bounce it. They may be 7-foot-2, but they’re basketball players, so the stuff that we’re doing with Tre out on the floor, they can do too.”
Notice he didn’t rail against the foolishness of those 38 3-point attempts or long openly for the return of a twin-tower lineup with two giants camped out on the block, clogging the paint. He played Thiero, a 6-8 guard, at power forward Tuesday, and the sophomore delivered 16 points and 13 boards, including two vicious, crowd-pleasing putback dunks. Neither he nor Kentucky looked the slightest bit intimidated by what seemed to outsiders like a fairly daunting challenge.
— Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) November 15, 2023
The Wildcats played five freshmen, a sophomore and two seniors in this game. Kansas’ top four players — Dickinson, Dajuan Harris Jr., KJ Adams and Kevin McCullar Jr., who combined for 78 of 89 points — are all 21 or 22 years old. Harris and Dickinson will be 23 by Christmas. They’re much bigger and older, and this sure didn’t look like a fair fight on paper.
In reality? “That was big-boy basketball,” Harris said. “It was good to go face-to-face with one of the best in the country,” Dickinson added. McCullar called Kentucky “super-talented” and said “their ability to get a shot off one-on-one is a big thing. I feel like they have a strength in that. They got a bunch of young guys, and they’re going to figure it out.”
Kentucky needs much more from Wagner and Edwards, who came into the night as projected lottery picks but didn’t play like pros at all, and the Cats need consistency from Reeves, not ice-cold nights in the highest-profile games. They also need a post presence at some point, in case they run into more Dickinson-sized problems along the way. But the fact all of that was missing Tuesday and they still nearly knocked off the No. 1 team in the country on a neutral court showed enough that one can now squint and see a contender.
“There was,” Calipari said, “a lot of good.”
(Photo of Rob Dillingham: David Banks / USA Today)