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Kentucky Basketball: What Did We Learn in their trip to Canada …A LOT!


Credit: Kentucky athletics

Slow the roll. It’s July! It’s not March!


But, if you are a Kentucky Wildcats basketball fan, this week has to get you excited about this upcoming season. Something that might not have been the case as few as three weeks ago.


Heck, Kentucky didn’t have Antonio Reeves or Tre Mitchell (or Jordan Burks and Joey Hart for that matter) officially in the fold and five-star recruit Aaron Bradshaw announced he had an injury.



The thought of four games in five days with a depleted roster that lacked college experience was something Big Blue Nation might have been quietly wondering if they could “pass” on the experience to someone else.


Instead, Kentucky wins four games in five days, two over host Canada, including an 89-72 win in the Gold Medal Game to win the Globl Jam Tournament, despite an injury to Ugonna Onyenso, the Wildcats starting center, in an exhibition game the day before the Globl Jam showcase started.


Suddenly, the Wildcat faithful have every right towant to skip right to Halloween so the calendar can turn to November and get the season started. No offense football fans!


What Did We Learn About the Wildcats in Canada…Other Than They Had Fun at Drake’s Mansion?


Just like we did in our Golbl Jam Preview, we will highlight NINE things that stood out in Kentucky’s gold-medal winning performance. Nine, of course, as the Wildcats will be looking to hang banner number nine in school history this spring.


1. Kentucky Needed Antonio Reeves to Return


Reeves tested the NBA Draft waters, enrolled in online classes at his former school, Illinois State, to spawn transfer portal rumors before declaring he would return to Lexington. All he did in Globl Jam was score 92 points and shoot over 56% from three-point range to take home MVP honors. With the penetrating ability of DJ Wagner, Justin Edwards, Reed Sheppard, Rob Dillingham and court vision of those guys plus passing professionalism from Tre Mitchell, Reeves is going to find himself open a lot from behind the arc this season.


2. Did Cal Coach This Tournament?


Yes, he did and did it well. When you combine the fact that Kentucky was representing USA Basketball and he had to interact and learn about his young team, he made the right decision to be the bench boss in all four games.


3. Kentucky’s Backcourt Will Be a PROBLEM for a Lot of Teams


There might be teams with guards just as good but Kentucky’s backcourt is talented, deep, versatile, athletic and what you need to play deep into the NCAA Tournament. It's legit four-deep with Wagner, Reeves, Sheppard, and Dillingham, which doesn’t take Edwards into account who can handle the ball and shoot with the best of them. They will be hard to press, they can all shoot it, make free throws, and they have excellent basketball IQ. That’s a team that Cal LOVES to coach and typically gets the most from.

4. Kentucky Had 10, Count Them, 10 Practices


The Wildcats had the opportunity to practice 10 times before the Globl Jam. Reeves and Thiero were the only contributors who donned the blue and white last year. Kentucky had 103 assists on 142 made field goals. In the Gold Medal game, they had 26 assists on 37 made baskets. Really? They practiced 10 times and committed only 51 turnovers in four games. Unselfish tops the list of things I would want to see if I were Calipari. That was in full effect in Canada.


5. The Freshman Were As Good As Advertised


Kentucky’s recruiting class was top-ranked when all was said and done. They showed why in these games without anything from 7-footer Aaron Bradshaw. Wagner is a “Tyler Herro bucket getter”, Edwards was a star in the last two games, including a 27-point, seven rebound outburst in the Gold Medal game. Sheppard is a Kentucky kid who will be a fan favorite. He’s going to play NOT because he is a home-grown kid, but because he will help this team win. Sure, he made three’s, but he showed defensive prowess, uncanny court vision, and a feel for the game that might not show up in the boxscore. No one “plays” four years at any major anymore. Sheppard may just be that type of kid. He probably won’t, but if he does, his name will be etched in Wildcat lore. Dillingham will be a work in progress, but there’s a flash of game dominance at times. Jordan Burks also contributed. Did I mention Bradshaw didn’t play?


6. The Tre Mitchell Effect


Who thought that Tre Mitchell would be the biggest surprise from the Globl Jam and this is the sixth of nine takeaways from these games? He joined the team on June 26. There’s a reason Calipari wanted him and his 102 games of college experience. He made three-pointers, many at clutch moments. He got rebounds. He made stellar passes (18 assists to only eight turnovers). His influence and talent will play a key role for Kentucky this season.



7. Adou Thiero Off Season Progression Was True


The talk of Thiero’s play was some of the summer-hype heading into this event. That hype proved to be true. He banged with the older, more mature opponents. Most importantly, he stuffed the stat sheet, rebounded, and the Wildcat faithful should feel confident when he is on the floor. His minutes come November will be earned and needed.


8. Shot Selection Was Impressive; The John Welch Effect


In many ways, college basketball is a guards game. Three-point shots are cherished. Dunks and bucket points are a bonus. One criticism of Kentucky the last few years has been their shot selection, namely a lot of mid-range jumpers. That very well may have been a result of the roster composition. This team should not play that way. The Wildcats shot 127 three-pointers in four games, basically 30 a game on a court with a deeper three-point line than the NCAA distance. When you add what Bradshaw and Unyenso add to this team down low and the fact that Wagner, Seppard, Dillingham, and even Edwards can penetrate and dish with the best of them, there’s a recipe that’s hard to defend. Add in a long-time NBA coaching savant in John Welch bringing a new wrinkle to Calipari’s offense and that’s a recipe for success. Want proof? Kentucky averaged 91.8 points per game. Last year, they averaged 74.5 points per game.


9. Is Roster Complete?


If you are a fan of Kentucky basketball, you got a LOT of positive answers from this gold-medal winning experience. One answer you did not get is how this roster meshes with Bradshaw and Onyenso, who may be out longer than anticipated as was tweeted out after the game. Does Kentucky add another big? Probably not, but both 7-footers are injured - and if Onyenso’s injury is more than just a sprained ankle- if the right player entered the portal or wanted to re-classify, there is a scholarship available and extra roster opening as protection.


CONCLUSION


Even the most die-hard Wildcat supporters might not have thought going undefeated and winning the Gold Medal at the Globl Games was realistic. Hopeful, sure. Quietly optimistic, yes! Definitely undefeated, no. But that’s what Kentucky and Coach Calipari accomplished.


  • The freshman didn’t play like freshman;

  • The CATS have some DOGS in their backcourt;

  • They responded well when teams made runs at them;

  • Reeves and Mitchell are great seniors to have for this team;

  • They have a lot of penetrators and shooters;

  • They all seem to like each other as witnessed by the unselfish play;

  • And if you want to add insult to injury or rub salt in the wound of your in-state rival, Kentucky won as many games in five days in Canada as Louisville won in 117 days last season.


On the flip side, this performance puts the bullseye on a still young and inexperienced Kentucky team heading into the 2023-24 season. The injury status of Bradsawn and Onyenso still looms large and while the constitution of this roster seems to mimic some of Calipari’s best Wildcata teams, it creates added pressure in future recruiting cycles with a much-needed deep March run to downplay the Calipari critics.


It’s only four summer games against older teams, albeit, probably the equivalent of mid-major US college teams. However, Kentucky went 4-0 and was pretty dominant in every game.


If I were a Kentucky fan, and I am, I would say this team has the IT factor that some of the past Wildcat teams didn’t have. The proof will be in the pudding come March, and hopefully April for Big Blue Nation, but the ingredients are there for an award-winning season that just happened to get an ultra-important jumpstart across the border in mid-July.


Enjoy the rest of the summer, Big Blue Nation. Your winter and spring success just got a much-needed boost with four wins at the Globl Jam in Canada.


Follow Stephen on Twitter - @SKirckII


Follow our Kentucky specific Twitter account - @TorresOnUK



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