Cason Wallace’s mentality expected to provide major boost for Wildcats against UCLA


Isabel McSwain

Kentucky Wildcats guard Cason Wallace (22) looks for an open teammate during the No. 4 Kentucky vs. Duquesne mens basketball game on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 77-52. Photo by Isabel McSwain | Staff

Cole Parke, Sports Editor

Whether it be last season with TyTy Washington Jr. or years past with the likes of Anthony Davis, Kentucky basketball has become synonymous with talented five-star freshmen.

This season appeared to be no different heading in with both Chris Livingston and Cason Wallace being brought in as five-star prospects but, while Livingston is coming into his own, Wallace has impressed to a degree few could have expected.

No matter who you ask on the team, you’ll get a similar answer regarding his mentality and work ethic.

“He has a leadership ability as a freshman,” Antonio Reeves said after Kentucky beat Howard. “He even tells me things like where I’m supposed to be on the floor and what I’m doing wrong. I believe that his game tells it all, he gets assists, he gets down there low and he scores, (he’s an) all-around player.”

The Howard game in particular was notable, with Wallace finishing the game with 15 points, eight rebounds and nine assists, just two boards and an assist away from recording only the fourth ever triple-double in Kentucky history.

None of that is even to mention the matchup against Howard was technically Wallace’s collegiate debut.

Kentucky associate coach Orlando Antigua further praised Wallace on Thursday prior to the matchup against UCLA, citing his maturity as one of the things that has surprised him the most.

“We knew Cason was a competitive, great spirited, well-rounded basketball player,” Antigua said. “We knew that he was a little bit more mature, but not to the point that we know now getting the chance to work with him daily. How emotionally mature, how physically mature he is. How his game is a little bit even past his age in that way. That’s a blessing.”

The idea of a “mature” freshman is pivotal for college basketball teams, with early one-and-done teams, many of which were coached by UK head coach John Calipari, drawing criticism for not being able to perform to the highest level come postseason time or on bigger stages.

While this way of thinking may mostly be a thing of the past in the modern game, individual freshmen are still routinely criticized for struggling in higher-stakes matchups.

Just last season Washington Jr. drew criticism after struggling in the Cats’ season opener against Duke in the Champions Classic, with the freshman recording just nine points and going 3-14 from the field.

The same can’t quite be said for Wallace, who has risen to the occasion despite it not always resulting in a UK victory.

In his first ‘major’ matchup, Wallace scored 14 points inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse against Michigan State in the 2022 Champions Classic, being the third highest scorer on his team just behind veteran stars Sahvir Wheeler (16) and Oscar Tshiebwe (22).

Then, traveling to Spokane Arena to face then No. 2 Gonzaga, Wallace finished with 14 points, again third on his team just behind veterans Jacob Toppin (16) and Tshiebwe (20).

Most recently, in London against Michigan, Wallace again finished with 14 points, tying as Kentucky’s leading scorer alongside Toppin and helping propel the Cats to a 73-69 victory. It is also worth mentioning that Wallace out-rebounded and out-assisted Toppin 8-5 and 5-1 respectively in the win.

Clearly able to rise to the occasion when it matters, Wallace will need to step up once again this Saturday as the Cats face who most ranking metrics would call their toughest opponent of the season: UCLA.

To make matters worse, like the three previous matchups against high-caliber opponents, the matchup against the Bruins will also be on a neutral court, taking place inside Madison Square Garden for the CBS Sports Classic.

Inside such a famed arena against such a historically significant program – UCLA is the only program with more national championships than Kentucky – having a young star who can play with the maturity of a veteran will be invaluable to the Wildcats.

“It’s important,” Antigua said. “The arena, the stage, all that is on the periphery early on. Going to the O2 Arena (London) and getting the chance to play in that facility, you walk around and you’re in awe. You’re going to have that same effect in the Garden. But ultimately the baskets are 10 feet, you gotta go play and once you get into the sweat of competing all that stuff is going out the window and it’s Kentucky versus UCLA.”

The Wildcats challenge the Bruins on Saturday, Dec. 17, inside Madison Square Garden in New York City for the CBS Sports Classic. Tipoff is expected for 5:15 p.m. EST and will air live on CBS.