Kentucky basketball dream lineup topples Texas A&M

Kentucky basketball dream lineup topples Texas A&M


Game day: Kentucky vs. Texas A&M

Click below for more of the Herald-Leader’s and’s coverage of Saturday’s men’s basketball game between Kentucky and Texas A&M at Rupp Arena in Lexington.

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For the third game in a row, Kentucky left the basketball court with a victory.

For the third game in a row, a lineup that many who have observed the Wildcats this season have been clamoring to see more of played a big part in the win.

UK defeated Texas A&M 76-67 on Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena, one week after the Cats’ shocking road victory at Tennessee and four days after their return to Rupp to beat the Georgia Bulldogs. This marked Kentucky’s third consecutive win since finding the bottom of its season in the form of a head-scratching home loss to lowly South Carolina, and — while not always pretty — the style with which these Cats have been playing of late points to greater possibilities in the future.

Coinciding with Kentucky’s resurgence is a reliance on a three-guard lineup that has shown an ability to make good things happen.

The combination of Cason Wallace, CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves — alongside frontcourt mainstays Jacob Toppin and Oscar Tshiebwe — is something that Kentucky fans haven’t been bashful about over the course of what has been, until a week ago, a disappointing season.

It’s also a lineup that saw relatively little time together until very recently.

Over Kentucky’s first 16 games, that five played exactly 28 possessions as one unit. The Cats had a 10-6 record by the end of that run, capped by the loss to South Carolina, a game that put UK — ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll — on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Over Kentucky’s past three games, that five has played 72 possessions together. And the Cats have outscored their opponents by a total of 42 points with that bunch on the court at the same time. With zero outliers.

In a 65-56 win at Tennessee, the group was plus-15 in 24 possessions.

In an 85-71 win over Georgia, the group was plus-13 in 22 possessions.

Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves celebrates after connecting on a three-point shot against Texas A&M on Saturday at Rupp Arena. Silas Walker [email protected]

And in Saturday’s nine-point win over Texas A&M, the group was plus-14 in 27 possessions, scoring at an amazing clip of 1.55 points per possession.

“The biggest thing is: you gotta guard all five guys,” UK Coach John Calipari acknowledged after his Wildcats beat the Aggies, who came in with a seven-game winning streak and 5-0 mark in the Southeastern Conference.

While the sample size for these stats is still quite small, the effect this Kentucky lineup could have on opponents is becoming more and more apparent with each outing. Playing Wallace, Fredrick and Reeves at once — three guys with size who can make threes at a high rate, thereby stretching the floor — combined with the paint presence of Tshiebwe forces opposing defenses to pick their poison.

They can try to defend the perimeter and let Tshiebwe have his way in the post. Or they can double Kentucky’s star big man and almost certainly leave some space for a Wildcat fully capable of capitalizing on an open shot.

“That’s the thing, man — you can’t ever double-team or try to pack it in on us,” Reeves said of a lineup with multiple shooters.

The Wildcats took 32 three-pointers Saturday afternoon. They made 11. That’s 34.4 percent. Not a great line — and less than their 37.1-percent clip for the season coming into the game — but good enough to get the job done against Texas A&M, which made just three three-pointers and was outscored by 24 points on the long ball.

The 32 shot attempts were one shy of the Calipari era record and the most that any Kentucky team has shot in more than 11 years. A scary thing for future opponents that run into UK’s three-guard lineup: above-average shooters Fredrick and Wallace struggled mightily with open shots Saturday, going 2-for-10 and 1-for-7 from deep, respectively. It seems unlikely that those players will shoot so poorly with shots so open moving forward. It does seem likely that the shots will be there if this lineup is on the court, with opposing defenses having to account for the national player of the year in the paint.

“There’s another guy on the court that you gotta pay special attention to,” Calipari said, setting up his joke. “The kid, what’s his name? 34? So now all of a sudden, you have everybody on the court — they can’t really … you’re gonna get threes.”

Another good sign for Kentucky’s future: Texas A&M saw this coming, and there’s not much the Aggies could do to stop it. A&M Coach Buzz Williams acknowledged that his staff had a special focus on the stats put up by this Kentucky dream lineup over the previous two games, calling the Cats “a distinctly different team” when that group is on the court together.

“It seemed as though they had a different collective thought in what they were trying to accomplish,” Williams said, complimentary, of the UK five over the previous two games.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari talks to his players during a timeout in Saturday’s game against Texas A&M. Ryan C. Hermens [email protected]

Of course, playing this lineup means not playing Sahvir Wheeler, who has led the SEC in assists going on three years straight and was an all-league selection to start this season. Wheeler missed the Tennessee game with a back injury and has come off of the bench in the last two. He’s played big minutes in the first half of each game, but Calipari has kept him seated during crunch time. Wheeler played 33 seconds in the second half against Georgia on Tuesday night. He played 57 seconds in the second half against Texas A&M.

In the eight total minutes that Wheeler was on the court Saturday, the Cats were outscored by seven points.

Obviously, there are pluses to Wheeler’s game, and Calipari — as well as the senior guard’s teammates — have been quick to point out the positives he brings to the team in recent days. Kentucky’s coach didn’t specifically address Wheeler’s usage after Saturday’s win, but it’s something that will have to be sorted out as this season continues.

Meanwhile, the Cats have found something that is clicking. To this point, at least.

Reeves had a team-high 23 points in 28 minutes Saturday afternoon. Wallace and Fredrick — despite poor shooting numbers — still found a way to make big plays, especially down the stretch.

And Kentucky’s star player? Tshiebwe finished with just seven points and took just five shots in 29 minutes on the court. He grabbed 17 rebounds, however, and that smile was as bright as ever during postgame interviews.

“The way the team let us play — they allowed us to shoot those (threes),” he said. “They left somebody open, so that was good. I told them, ‘Shoot.’ Even when I touched the ball in the post, I would just kick it out. ‘Shoot it. Shoot it!’ … As long as we’re winning, I’m good with that.”

Next game

Kentucky at Vanderbilt

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday

TV: SEC Network

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 13-6 (4-3 SEC), Vanderbilt 10-9 (3-3)

Series: Kentucky leads 154-47

Last meeting: Kentucky won 77-71 on March 11, 2022, at the SEC Tournament in Tampa, Fla.

This story was originally published January 21, 2023 7:04 PM.

Kentucky basketball dream lineup topples Texas A&M

Ben Roberts is the University of Kentucky men’s basketball beat writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He has previously specialized in UK basketball recruiting coverage and created and maintained the Next Cats blog. He is a Franklin County native and first joined the Herald-Leader in 2006.
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