Before sending the players home for the Thanksgiving holiday, the Wildcats we’ll get one final game played in the rare mid-week afternoon tip at Rupp Arena. After squeaking by VMI and allowing 19 three-pointers to be made, the Wildcats will host the Winthrop Eagles on Thanksgiving Eve.
Unlike North Dakota and VMI, Winthrop will be brining more athleticism to the table. After allowing their defense to be exposed by the spread offense and hot shooting from Bubba Parham the Cats must be ready to bounce back just ahead of Thanksgiving.
Nuts and Bolts
Winthrop resides in the Big South Conference and the school in Rock Hill, South Carolina has emerged as a power in recent years. Under Gregg Marshall from 1998-2007, the Eagles went to seven NCAA Tournaments including one victory in 2007. Marshall’s success allowed him to land the Wichita State gig. After an up-and-down few years, Pat Kelsey stepped in.
Pat Kelsey is a Cincinnati native who played his college ball at both Wyoming and Xavier. After starting his coaching career in the Ohio high school ranks, Kelsey was hired by Wake Forest to work under Skip Prosser. After spending nearly a decade in Winston-Salem, Chris Mack hired Kelsey to join his first staff at Xavier.
After three years of assistant work at his alma mater that included three NCAA Tournament bids, Pat Kelsey landed the Winthrop job at the age of 37. Since then, Kelsey has won two regular season Big South titles and led the Eagles to the NCAA Tournament in 2017. He owns a .630 winning percentage and nearly left the program for the UMass job in the offseason.
Under their young head coach, Winthrop loves to push the tempo and this season is no different. Per KenPom, the Eagles rank 16th in Division I in possessions per game. This goes for the defensive side as well with the Eagles loving to pressure the basketball and turn the game into a track meet. For those heading to Rupp Arena for the lunch tip, you’re in for a very aesthetically pleasing basketball game.
The team’s best player is found in the backcourt with junior college transfer Nych Smith setting the tone. A year after coming off the bench, Smith has emerged as go-to force who is putting up 19 points per outing on a .511 shooting percentage. After seeing the performance by VMI’s Bubba Parham on Sunday, he’s likely chomping at the bit to go at this Kentucky defense.
The Memphis native makes a living off getting into the paint off of the bounce and creating fouls. In just four games this season, the 5-foot-10 and 180-pound guard has attempted 32 free throws. There he is hitting at a 75% clip so it will be essential for Kentucky to guard without fouling.
Joining him in the backcourt is another senior. Adam Pickett is putting up 18 points per game and has poured in half of his three-point attempts. The Virginia native can be streaky from the outside, but when he is rolling the Eagles are tough to stop.
In a support role, senior Bjorn Broman leads the team in minutes and is a very efficient three-point shooter. For the fourth game in a row to start the season, Kentucky will be facing a team that loves to space the floor.
For a mid-major, this starting backcourt is small but they are explosive. They are the main reason the Eagles can play at the tempo they want and they’re leading the way in the scoring department. After struggling to slow down opposing backcourts to start the season, Kentucky is in for another tall challenge.
In the post, Winthrop is undersized like many mid-major programs but the player to look out for is 6-foot-8, 200-pound senior Josh Ferguson. The Miami native started 26 games last season for Pat Kelsey’s squad and this year he has emerged as an efficient stretch big.
The junior is putting up 13 points per game and is hitting over 40% of his three-pointers. To play the way Winthrop wants to play, it is essential to have bigs that can step away from the paint and make shots. This is exactly what Ferguson provides the team.
Josh Ferguson is an undersized four who has been called on to play a lot of minutes at the five for Winthrop. They love small ball. Freshman wing Michael Anumba has started for Winthrop at the four spot so expect to see another offense with excellent spacing at Rupp Arena. Winthrop has a few bigs they will bring off the bench, but they do not get away from their identity. They are small, quick, and want to create as many possessions as possible.
Keys to Victory
- After being shredded by VMI’s small ball lineup, Kentucky will be facing another one before the Thanksgiving break. However, Winthrop has some athleticism and they won’t be afraid to challenge Kentucky in the paint. UK’s defense will be challenged off the bounce and the Wildcats must start showing improvement in eliminating drives.
- Even with VMI pouring in 19 threes last game, Kentucky continued to build on their identity by dominating the glass and guarding without fouling. The rebounding advantage should continue, but keeping Winthrop off the charity stripe will be difficult. Nych Smith is a dynamic rim attacker who is not afraid of contact in the lane. With the rate that Kentucky is giving up open looks on the perimeter, they cannot start allowing teams to get cheap points at the free throw line.
- UK is going to have a monster size advantage in the post and UK’s guards must force feed the bigs. Winthrop does not have an answer for either Reid Travis or P.J. Washington on the block. Even E.J. Montgomery and his current raw offensive game should be able to do damage against this frontcourt. The Wildcats are struggling to find clean outside looks so getting the bigs involved early should help create easy opportunities for UK’s perimeter players.