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All eyes (but few updates) are on Kentucky basketball’s 7-footers at media day

Nature

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Zvonimir Ivisic surveyed the circus inside Kentucky’s Joe Craft Center Wednesday afternoon and smiled sheepishly. The 7-foot-2 freshman center from Croatia, just two weeks into his American experience, appeared to shrink as an army of strangers wielding video and audio recorders surrounded him and leaned in closely for everything find out about the new addition to British basketball’s annual media event. .

He had previously dealt with journalists while playing in the Adriatic League abroad, but “not like this”, he said. “It’s all new to me. It’s pretty nervous. Yeah, it’s pretty nervous. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty nervous.

Ivisic, already affectionately nicknamed Big Z by coach John Calipari and a fan base hoping he will be the savior of an injury-plagued frontcourt, and fellow 7-footers Aaron Bradshaw and Ugonna Onyenso were by far the most searched interviews on Wednesday. . Everyone wants to know when and how much they can help a team that, for now, is loaded with talented guards but lacks a true center available to play.

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“I’ve said it before: All the teams I’ve coached that have won 38, 35 games, Final Fours, Elite Eights, national championship games, they all had rim protection,” Calipari said. “And when you don’t, well, I’m going back to Nerlens (Christmas). We weren’t that bad (in 2012-13), then we lost it and what? We were bad. So you need it, and we have it. We just have to get them on the field.

Calipari offered no real updates on Bradshaw and Oneynso, who both underwent foot surgery in the offseason, other than that they are “both fighting to come back.” He backtracked on the timeline he shared at UK’s pro day on Oct. 11 that both could be out another five to seven weeks, putting the season opener in question . On Wednesday, he simply said they would return when they were ready. Ivisic isn’t dealing with an injury, but rather the challenge of a late college admission, which delayed his arrival on campus well after the team’s preseason practices began.

Calipari told Big Blue Madness on Oct. 13 that fans could see Ivisic in action for the first time during the team’s Blue-White scrimmage the following weekend — but Ivisic did not play. Calipari said Big Z took a few lumps during a “ramp-up” period of early practices, and the Wildcats decided to slow things down and delay his debut.

“I wasn’t comfortable,” Calipari said. “He’ll be fine.” I’m just a little suspicious. I want him to be at his best. I guess he’s a little frustrated with me, but there seem to be a lot of people frustrated with me, so it’s no big deal. As I always do, I will take care of the children and try to do what is best for him and for us.

Calipari said Ivisic will do an individual workout Wednesday afternoon but will not participate in the full-contact session with his teammates, making it unlikely he will play in Kentucky’s first exhibition game Friday night against Georgetown. College. The typical ramp-up process for a new player includes conditioning, individual drills, then 2-on-2s, 3-on-3s and eventually full practices and games. This process was accelerated for Ivisic, due to his late arrival.

“I think we threw it a little too fast,” Calipari said. “And he was good. Everyone who came in and looked was like, “Yeah, he’s fine.” »He’s a good basketball player. But it’s not King Kong. This is another play for us.

Calipari guessed Ivisic would be ready to play in the second exhibition on Nov. 2 against Kentucky State. The regular season opener is Nov. 6 against New Mexico State, and the first chance for an opponent to really punish the Wildcats for not showing up in the post will be Nov. 14 when the Champions Classic against Kansas and the 7-footers. -2 American fighter Dickinson.

“I want to play so much, but I have to get in shape first,” said Ivisic, who thanks Calipari’s cautious approach. “He’s not pushing me to do things right now, because maybe I can’t. He goes very slowly.

Like Ivisic, when Bradshaw sat at his table for media day, the All-American and projected McDonald’s lottery pick’s eyes widened.

“Woo-hoo-hoo-hooo!” he said. “That’s a lot of cameras, man.”

He knew why they were all there. Bradshaw said he works every day to prepare to help Kentucky, rehabbing his foot, practicing as much as he can and making a lot of shots. There is no deadline for his return, he said, “but I’m doing everything I can.” He’s focused on learning everything he can about the game — and what Calipari expects — while he waits to get back on the court.

“I’m just here to win. That’s all I’m here to do. No matter what I have to do, I’m just here to win,” he said. Bradshaw was a shot-blocking threat for a New Jersey state championship team and on the Nike EYBL circuit, so can he be Calipari’s rim protector when he returns? “Sure, I can. I love defense. It’ll get my money, you feel me?

Onyenso, who played sparingly as a freshman last season for Kentucky but averaged 5.8 blocks per 40 minutes, appears to have the longest road to recovery. He said he still doesn’t run or jump and limits himself to flat-footed shooting.

“I live with my coach. Whatever it takes to be healthy, to get better,” Onyenso said. When could this be? “No comment on this. I don’t have a calendar. I was a little frustrated at first, because of the pain, but I won’t let that hold me back. I have to push. I have to continue working. It happened, so look forward to the good thing that happens next.

His injury occurred during a closed scrimmage a day before Kentucky began a four-game exhibition tournament in Canada in July. Onyenso, who served as a two-time understudy to All-American Oscar Tshiebwe last year, seemingly looked much improved and ready to make a major contribution before his injury.

“We had great practices and a great scrimmage,” Onyenso said. “I had the whole summer to work, I worked on different things, and I just needed to show it. But unfortunately I got injured. I hope I can do it this season. Sometimes I watch practice and think, “I wish I was there. I might do a little damage.

Until one of the actual centers becomes available, the Tre Mitchell matchup remains weak. The 6-foot-9 transfer from West Virginia, who became a stretch four at Kentucky, is at least a viable option as an offensive-minded stretch five.

“He’s a five — and wants to be a five — but he’s also a four,” Calipari said. “Your four can be one of these big ones, and he can stay at the five.”

And if the Cats get into a street fight where they need a bruiser, help could come from an unlikely source: second-year guard Adou Thiero, who stood just 6 feet tall at the end of his high school career but is now a muscular, 6-foot-8, 220-pound Swiss Army knife. His quite astonishing physical transformation created a new confidence.

“It helped me realize that I can overcome more bumps — and cause bumps, just by being able to be physical with everyone,” he said. “As long as I’m on the field, if you need me to play one, two, three or four, I’ll play it. Even the five – put me in there, Coach.

(Photo by, left to right, Ugonna Onyenso, Zvonimir Ivisic and DJ Wagner: Courtesy of UK Athletics)



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