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Gonzaga @ #17 Kentucky Preview

The Zags have no choice but to come out of Lexington with a win.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

In 2022, Kentucky and Gonzaga agreed to a six-year series which includes two games at the Rupp Arena, one game in the McCarthey Athletic Center, and three neutral site games. After losing the first game of the series last season in the Spokane Arena, Kentucky will look to even the series out. This is a must-win for the Zags who are STILL searching for that first Quad 1 victory. If the Zags want any chance at an at-large bid, you can’t fly away from Lexington without a W.

Kentucky is 10-3 at home this season. Gonzaga is 3-2 in true road games but nothing has compared to playing in a hostile environment like Rupp Arena will be (and in the first ever trip to Lexington for the program). Both teams are coming off impressive shooting performances with each making 15 three-pointers. It’ll be interesting to see if this hot streak from deep will continue for the Zags (I guarantee it will for the Wildcats who is the best three-point shooting team in the country). When they hit 6+ three-pointers, Gonzaga has a record of 14-1 this season. Just something to think about heading into Saturday.

The Wildcats look to be without their everyday starter at point guard, DJ Wagner (ankle) as well as Tre Mitchell (back) against the Zags. No one wishes injury upon a player but not having to deal with those two would be a huge sigh of relief for Gonzaga. If you’re a Kentucky fan, it’s the next man up mentality and John Calipari has yet another loaded roster consisting of mostly freshman studs.

Rob Dillingham (15.5 PPG on 43.3% 3PT, 4.1 APG, 3.0 RPG) is a major spark off the bench. Zero chance the star freshman will be in Lexington next season as he looks to be a NBA lottery pick in the offseason along with a few other potential NBA Draft picks for Kentucky. Dillingham is an explosive, quick guard who is dynamic with the ball.

Antonio Reeves (19.7 PPG on 50.0 FG% and 44.4 3PT%, 4.3 RPG, 1.7 APG) is the lone senior available and is the engine for the Kentucky offense. The 2022-2023 SEC Sixth Man of the Year has moved into the starting lineup and acting more of a vocal leader for the Wildcats.

Due to Kentucky’s depth across the board, Gonzaga’s starters are going to have to put in some major minutes. I’m expecting some time to be given to Luka Krajnovic and Jun Seok Yeo off the bench as well.

#17 Kentucky’s record -

16-6, 6-4 (W vs New Mexico State, W vs Texas A&M-Commerce, L vs #1 Kansas, W vs Stonehill, W vs Saint Joseph’s, W vs Marshall, W vs #8 Miami, L vs UNC Wilmington, W vs Penn, W vs #9 North Carolina, W @ Louisville, W vs Illinois State, W @ Florida, W vs Missouri, L @ Texas A&M, W vs Mississippi State, W vs Georgia, L @ South Carolina, W @ Arkansas, L vs Florida, L vs #5 Tennessee, W vs Vanderbilt)

89.7 PPG (2nd in the nation)

78.3 points allowed

49.2 FG% (15th in the nation)

41.1 3P% (1st in the nation)

74.6 FT%

39.1 RPG (64th in the nation)

18.1 APG (13th in the nation)

7.8 SPG (tied for 29th in the nation)

6.0 BPG (7th in the nation)

9.9 TO

KenPom rankings -

#24 overall

121.6 adjusted offensive efficiency (#5)

102.8 adjusted defensive efficiency (#102)

Key player to watch for -

Reed Shephard (freshman, guard) - 12.0 PPG on 52.7 FG%/ 53.7 3PT%/78.7 FT%, 4.3 RPG, 4.2 APG, 2.4 SPG

The combo guard coming off the bench is as fundamentally sound as a college player can come. Shephard makes his money shooting the ball (three-pointers, mid-range, floaters, at the free throw line) and making the smart decision with his high basketball IQ. He throws out physicality and toughness on defense so Gonzaga’s guards have to be ready for that when handling the ball. The freshman has been a pleasant surprise for the Wildcats this season and his draft stock continues to rise each game.

Gonzaga will look to push the pace and try to run Kentucky out the gym. This will be a high-powered offensive game with the Zags ranked 15th in the nation at 84.7 PPG. Can the Wildcats get back in transition defense?

Graham Ike, Anton Watson, and Braden Huff off the bench are the key individuals to worry about if you’re the Wildcats on defense. With three seven-footers on the roster (Aaron Bradshaw, Zvonimir Ivisic, Ugonna Onyenso), Kentucky has the versatility to throw multiple looks at Gonzaga. Calipari will look to make his post presence known immediately.

Gonzaga (29th in the country with 40.7 RPG) is one of the best rebounding teams that Kentucky will face the season. The Zags have done an incredible job at crashing the offensive glass and will need all the second chance opportunities they can get in this matchup.

Make sure to tune into CBS at 1 PM PT with Gonzaga’s at-large hopes for the NCAA Tournament on the line. Mark Few and John Calipari may be the best of friends but come game time, they’ll be mortal enemies.

Arden Cravalho is a Gonzaga University graduate from the Bay Area... Follow him on Twitter @a_cravalho