Preview: Western Kentucky step-in for Louisville; set to face UK in Rupp Arena


Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari coaches his team from the sidelines during the UK vs. Miles College exhibition basketball game on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 80-71. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Scott Clarke

After the 55th rendition of the Battle of the Bluegrass was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns within the Louisville program, the Kentucky Wildcats will now take on another in-state foe, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.

The news came out Monday morning that the Louisville game would be put on hold, which sent head coach John Calipari and UK Athletics into searching for his next opponent. There were reports of talks with Gonzaga, Florida State, Bellarmine, UCONN and Wisconsin to play Kentucky, but nothing came to fruition.

After rumors of a Wisconsin home-and-home deal came about, Calipari announced on his radio show that the Wildcats would take on Western Kentucky in a game that would help fund tornado relief efforts in Western Kentucky.

Wednesday will be the first time the two will play each other since the 2012 NCAA Tournament, where the Wildcats beat WKU 81-66 in the first round en route to a national championship.

No. 20 Kentucky heads into the game following a dominant win over North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic, 98-69. 

Star point guard and this week’s SEC Player of the Week, Sahvir Wheeler was the star of the show, scoring a team-high 26 points while recording eight assists. Wheeler was also a pest on the defensive end, with four steals.

It was also a coming-out party for fifth-year senior guard Kellan Grady, as he hunted his shot more and racked up 18 points while shooting five-for-seven from deep. 

Oscar Tshiebwe was his usual self down low. After only playing seven minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, Tshiebwe finished with 16 points, finishing at the rim and from the mid-range. Tshiebwe also hauled in 12 rebounds. 

As for Western Kentucky, the Hilltoppers come into the game following a victory against Louisville, 82-72. It was WKU’s first win against the Cardinals in nine years.

The Hilltoppers rank 98th in adjusted tempo according to KenPom, nearly identical to what the Wildcats saw against North Carolina.

The biggest key to victory for Kentucky will be to speed up the game and force Western Kentucky. The Wildcats come into the game 251st in the country in forcing turnovers. The Cats are at their best when they are able to run in transition and get quick and easy buckets.

The Western Kentucky roster is nothing to sleep on.

First, the starting guards who consist of sophomore point guard Dayvion McKnight, fifth-year senior Camron Justice, and senior guard Luke Frampton. 

McKnight, a Shelbyville, Kentucky native, leads the backcourt in scoring with 14.1 points-per-game while shooting 53 percent from the field. McKnight also averages 6.4 assists-per-game.

Justice is second on the team in scoring on the team, coming into Wednesday averaging 13.2 points-per-game while shooting 36.2 percent from deep.

Frampton is a solid scoring option as well, averaging 9.6 points-per-game.

Next, the starting forwards. Junior Jamarion Sharp and senior Jairus Hamilton have been a force down low this year.

Sharp, who is the tallest player in Division One basketball this year at seven-foot-five, averages 8.2 points-per-game and 7.8 rebounds-per-game. Sharp is a force on the defensive end, averaging 4.8 blocks-per-game, which is best in the country.

Hamilton leads the team in scoring with 16.5 points-per-game and is capable of stretching the floor, shooting 32 percent from 3-point range this year. Hamilton will provide UK’s Keion Brooks Jr. and Jacob Toppin problems on the offensive end.

The Hilltoppers will be a challenge for UK, but nothing that they haven’t seen before.

Coming off a great performance against UNC, Wheeler has been arguably one of the best point guards in the country and will look to stay hot against the Hilltoppers. Freshman TyTy Washington is able to get his shot off against anyone and Justice does not pose much threat to change that.

As for the forwards, Tshiebwe has been able to give any opposing forward a tough day this year. However, it will be interesting to see how the WVU transfer fares against Sharp. Tshiebwe, although eight inches shorter, is 20 pounds heavier which should equal an advantage on the glass.

Another key to victory for the Cats will be bench production. Sixth-year guard Davion Mintz has been struggling shooting the ball lately, shooting just 30 percent from the field over the last four games. If Mintz can start to catch fire, Kentucky could have a comfortable road to victory.

Sophomore forward Lance Ware brought good physicality against UNC, a team who has talented bigs. Ware will look to continue that against WKU, as should junior forward Jacob Toppin.

The two Bluegrass squads squaring off is bigger than the game itself. Although this may not be the marquee matchup against UofL that fans were hoping for, Wednesday’s matchup will be for an outstanding cause.

Kentucky will look to continue their hot play on Wednesday evening at 6 p.m. E.T. The game will be available to watch on ESPN.