How will the Wildcats follow up their best performance of the season? And will Aaron Bradshaw make his debut?
After making a national statement on Tuesday, beating the No. 8 Miami Hurricanes by 22 points, the Kentucky Wildcats retake the court this Saturday against the UNC Wilmington Seahawks, where John Calipari played two years collegiately before transferring to Clarion.
When Calipari played there from 1978-80, the Seahawks had just moved to Division 1. More than 40 years later, they have arguably become the best team in their conference, the Coastal Athletic Association, winning the most regular season championships and winning the conference tournament six times since 2000.
This season, they will make another run as they are projected to finish second in their conference. Andy Katz actually projects them to win the conference and make the NCAA Tournament.
Based on the KenPom ratings, at 133rd, UNCW will be the fourth-best opponent Kentucky has faced this season. Kentucky should still control this game, but they will faced with a different look.
Let’s take a look at the matchup.
Speed the Game Up
As John Calipari said in his postgame press conference after the Miami game, he doesn’t have to yell at this Kentucky team to “GO!”. Averaging 76.7 possessions per game, the Wildcats play at the 34th-fastest pace in the country.
In comparison, UNC Wilmington averages 69.7 possessions per game, which is below average for 262nd in the country.
Through seven games, the Wildcats have been fortunate to mostly play teams that like to play a similar, up-and-down style. That said, UNCW will look to slow it down, which is easier to do than speeding a game up. This is why many projections have Kentucky scoring one of their lowest point totals of the season.
UNCW doesn’t turn the ball over a lot, so Kentucky will need to take advantage when they do and create transition opportunities off of rebounds.
Even after beating Miami 95-73, Calipari’s first comment in the postgame press conference was, “Got outrebounded again.” That has been the case in two straight games, including giving up 10+ offensive rebounds in three straight.
UNCW is one of the worst rebounding teams Kentucky has played this season, averaging 33.3 per game, 270th nationally.
When Bradshaw returns, potentially on Saturday, he will certainly aid significantly in that, but the team needs to do a better job as a whole. A game will come when the shots aren’t falling, and having a rebounding advantage can be the difference in winning or losing a game during March Madness.
Speaking of Bradshaw, on Monday, he participated in his first full-contact practice at Kentucky, returning from an offseason foot injury that he had surgery on. Bradshaw followed that up on Tuesday by going through his first full pregame warmup, looking as impressive as you can in a warm-up, as the 7-footer was hitting contested shots from all three levels.
— Tristan Pharis (@TristanUda) November 28, 2023
The plan is for Bradshaw to make his Kentucky debut this Saturday against UNCW, likely in limited minutes. Bradshaw’s return will address Kentucky’s concerns of size, rebounding, and rim protection.
With his perimeter skillset, Calipari reiterated on Tuesday that he will not change the way Kentucky will play.
No. 12 Kentucky Wildcats (6-1) vs. UNC Wilmington (5-1)
Time: 4:00 pm ET on Saturday, December 2nd, 2023
Location: Central Bank Center at Rupp Arena
TV Channel: SEC Network
Announcers: Mark Neely and Daymeon Fishback
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 yet to release the odds, but expect Kentucky to be the favorite. ESPN’s matchup predictor has a high level of confidence in the Cats at 86.1%, with Bart Torvik slightly more confident at 88%. KenPom has it at 94%, while EvanMiya is at 93% and projects the spread to be Kentucky -16.
Predictions: Bart Torvik projects Kentucky to score its lowest point total this season but to still win 80-67. EvanMiya and Haslametrics both project the Cats to win by very similar margins, 83-67 and 82-66. KenPom went with an 86-69 victory, Kentucky!