Advertisement

‘He’s coming around.’ Now in March, John Calipari likes what he sees from Zvonimir Ivisic.

Kentucky basketball will take its first three-game winning streak of conference play into Senior Night.

The Wildcats, now ranked No. 15 in the AP poll, will try and make it four wins in a row in SEC play for the first time this season when Vanderbilt comes to town late Wednesday night for the final Rupp Arena game of the 2023-24 season.

And if it’s anything like the first meeting this season between the Cats and Commodores, then it should be a good time for Kentucky fans.

UK blasted Vandy by 32 points earlier this season in Nashville, and any kind of similar result would give the Cats a boost heading into this weekend’s regular season finale at No. 4 Tennessee.

Ahead of the final two games of the regular season, UK head coach John Calipari hosted another edition of his weekly radio show Monday night. Most of the discussion centered around two of UK’s youngest, and biggest, players: Freshmen forwards Aaron Bradshaw and Zvonimir Ivisic.

Calipari went in depth on the improvements he’s seen from each player this season, as well as what their recent success could mean for the Cats as the NCAA Tournament creeps ever closer.

Aaron Bradshaw (2) scored 15 points in Saturday’s win over Arkansas.
Aaron Bradshaw (2) scored 15 points in Saturday’s win over Arkansas.

Aaron Bradshaw has breakout performance in Arkansas win

In some ways, perhaps freshman forward Aaron Bradshaw was a victim of his own success.

Bradshaw’s college basketball debut was delayed until early December after he underwent an offseason medical procedure for a foot injury. But, he made a big impact in just his second-ever game: The 7-foot-1 freshman big from New Jersey went for 17 points and 11 rebounds in a Dec. 9 game against Penn in Philadelphia.

This remains Bradshaw’s only collegiate double-double.

And aside from a timely 3-pointer to push Kentucky to a victory in the Wildcats’ SEC opener at Florida, Bradshaw’s play has had more misses than hits over the last few months.

But Saturday was a big step in the right direction for Bradshaw. He had 15 points (his second-highest collegiate scoring total) in a home win over Arkansas.

Bradshaw has made his last seven shots from the field, a streak that has stretched across UK’s last three games, all wins.

After Saturday’s game, Bradshaw spoke about how the play of Kentucky’s other bigs (including Ivisic) has served as motivation for him to play better and earn his minutes.

“Instead of blaming, or doing any of that, he’s taking responsibility and he’s playing better,” Calipari said of Bradshaw. “I mean, he really played well.”

Zvonimir Ivisic has played at least 20 minutes in three straight games.
Zvonimir Ivisic has played at least 20 minutes in three straight games.

Zvonimir Ivisic shows continued improvement as postseason play looms

Kentucky’s other freshman big, Croatian Zvonimir Ivisic, has had a similarly choppy season.

Like Bradshaw, he also arrived with a splash: Few Kentucky fans will ever forget his electric UK debut, as Ivisic had 13 points, five rebounds, three blocks and one famed behind-the-back pass in a home romp over Georgia on Jan. 20.

Struggles then ensued for Ivisic, who soon found himself playing sparingly because of his defensive shortcomings.

But those problems with defense and physicality have seen improvement in recent games, and Ivisic has been a big contributor in Kentucky’s current three-game winning streak.

“The only challenge I gave to him, I said, ‘Z, if you want to play more, you’re going to have to rebound defensively,’” Calipari said. “If you don’t rebound, or you’re not guarding, I’m going to play these other guys. If you do those two things, it’s easy to leave you in the game. And your offense is just your feel for it.”

Ivisic has played at least 20 minutes in each of Kentucky’s last three contests: He had 18 points in the Feb. 24 home win over Alabama and 12 points and nine rebounds in Saturday’s triumph over Arkansas.

“He’s coming around,” Calipari said of Ivisic, before adding that he challenged Ivisic in UK’s practice on Monday to push through fatigue.

Kentucky freshman Aaron Bradshaw is averaging 5.5 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.
Kentucky freshman Aaron Bradshaw is averaging 5.5 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.

Should you expect Bradshaw and Ivisic to share the court for Kentucky?

A caller into Calipari’s radio show Monday night asked about the potential of Kentucky using a two-big lineup that would feature both Bradshaw and Ivisic.

Calipari, for the most part, quashed that idea.

While the Kentucky coach acknowledged that playing Bradshaw and Ivisic together produced good results in UK’s previous matchup with Vanderbilt on Feb. 6 in Nashville, Calipari said he’s trending toward a specific lineup style: Four scorers and one big.

“The reason is, we really score,” Calipari said. “Now if we defend, you end up winning by a bunch. But, I kind of like it that way. There may be some times I try two bigs. We maybe play a team that, they have two bigs and we’re going to try to make them match down with us and it doesn’t work. OK, let’s match down with them. That’s what’s nice about having bigs.”

Next game

Vanderbilt at No. 15 Kentucky

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday

TV: SEC Network

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Vanderbilt 8-21 (3-13 SEC), Kentucky 21-8 (11-5)

Series: Kentucky leads 156-49

Last meeting: Kentucky won 109-77 on Feb. 6 in Nashville, Tenn.