LEXINGTON, Ky. — Zvonimir Ivisic surveyed the circus inside Kentucky’s Joe Craft Center on Wednesday afternoon and smiled sheepishly. The 7-foot-2 freshman center from Croatia, just two weeks into his American experience, seemed to shrink as an army of strangers wielding video and audio recorders surrounded him and leaned in close to learn all about the new guy at UK basketball’s annual media.
He’d dealt with reporters before while playing in the Adriatic League overseas, but “not like this,” he said. “This is 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 referred to as Big Z by coach John Calipari and a fan base hoping he’ll be the savior of an injury-plagued frontcourt, and fellow 7-footers Aaron Bradshaw and Ugonna Onyenso were easily the most sought-after interviews Wednesday. Everyone wants to know when and how much they can help a team that, for now, is loaded with talented guards but does not have a true center available to play.
Kentucky has 21 feet of question marks inside as season rapidly approaches
“I’ve said it before: All the teams I’ve coached that 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 go back to Nerlens (Noel). We weren’t that bad (in 2012-13), then we lost him and what? We were bad. So you need that, and we have it. We just gotta get them on the court.”
Calipari offered no real update on Bradshaw and Oneynso, who both had offseason foot surgery, other than they’re both “fighting to come back.” He’s walked back the timeline he shared during UK’s pro day on Oct. 11, that both could be out another five to seven weeks, which puts the season opener in question. On Wednesday, he just said they’ll return when ready. Ivisic is not dealing with an injury, rather the challenge of late admission to the university, which delayed his arrival on campus until well after the team began preseason practices.
Calipari said at Big Blue Madness on Oct. 13 that fans could see Ivisic in action for the first time at the team’s Blue-White scrimmage the following weekend — but then Ivisic didn’t play. Calipari said Big Z had taken some 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’s going to be fine. I’m just a little leery. I want him to be at his best. My guess is he’s a little frustrated with me, but there seems to be a lot of people frustrated with me, so that’s OK. Like I always do, I’m going to look after the kids and try to do what’s best for him and us.”
Calipari said Ivisic would do an individual workout Wednesday afternoon but not participate in the full-contact session with his teammates, which makes it unlikely he’ll 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-2, 3-on-3 and eventually full practices and games. That process was sped up for Ivisic, because of his late arrival.
“I think we threw him in a little too fast,” Calipari said. “And he was good. Anybody who came in and watched was like, ‘Yeah, he’s good.’ He’s a good basketball player. But he’s not King Kong. He’s another piece for us.”
Calipari guessed that Ivisic will be ready to play by 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 if they don’t have a post presence will be Nov. 14 in the Champions Classic against Kansas and 7-foot-2 All-American Hunter Dickinson.
“I want to play so bad, but I need to get in shape first,” said Ivisic, who is grateful for Calipari’s cautious approach. “He’s not pressing me to do stuff right now, because maybe I can’t. He’s taking it really slowly.”
Like Ivisic, when Bradshaw sat down at his table for media day, the McDonald’s All-American and projected lottery pick’s eyes widened.
“Woo-hoo-hoo-hooo!” he said. “That’s a lotta cameras, man.”
Aaron Bradshaw (who says no timeline update on his return) looked around at his large media day crowd, smiled, wide eyes.
“Woo-hoo-hoooooo, that’s a lotta cameras.” pic.twitter.com/l8gT95yh8X
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_ATH) October 25, 2023
He knew why they were all there. Bradshaw said he’s working every day to get ready to help Kentucky, rehabbing his foot, working out to the extent he’s allowed and getting up a high volume of shots. There’s no timeline for his return, he said, “but I’m doing everything I can.” He’s focused on all the things he can learn 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. Regardless what I have to do, I’m just here to win,” he said. Bradshaw was a shot-blocking menace for a New Jersey state championship team and on the Nike EYBL circuit, so can he be Calipari’s rim protector when he returns? “Of course I can. I love defense. That’s going to get me my money, you feel me?”
Onyenso, who played sparingly as a freshman last season for Kentucky but averaged 5.8 blocks per 40 minutes, seems to have the longest remaining road to recovery. He said he’s still not running or jumping and is limited to flat-footed form shooting.
“I’m, like, living with my trainer. Whatever it takes to get healthy, to get better,” Onyenso said. When might that be? “No comment on that. I have no timeline. I was a little frustrated when it first happened, because of the pain, but I won’t let that hold me back. I’ve got to push. I’ve got to keep working. It happened, so just look forward to the good thing that’s going to happen next.”
His injury happened in the closed scrimmage a day before Kentucky began a four-game exhibition tournament in Canada in July. Onyenso, who served as two-time All-American Oscar Tshiebwe’s understudy last year, apparently looked much-improved and ready to make a major contribution before the injury.
“We had great practices and a great scrimmage,” Onyenso said. “I had the whole summer to put in work, worked on different things, and I just needed to showcase that. But unfortunately I got injured. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that this season. Sometimes I’m watching practice like, ‘I wish I was in there. I could do a little damage.’”
Until one of the actual centers does become available, it remains the Tre Mitchell show down low. The 6-foot-9 West Virginia transfer, who came to be a stretch-four at Kentucky, is at least a viable option as an offensively minded stretch-five.
“He is a five — and wants to be a five — but he’s also a four,” Calipari said. “Your four can be one of those big guys, and he can stay at the five.”
And if the Cats get into a street fight where they need a bruiser, help might come from an unlikely source: sophomore guard Adou Thiero, who was just 5-foot-10 late in his high school career but is now a muscled-bound, 6-foot-8, 220-pound Swiss Army knife. His fairly astounding physical transformation has created a new confidence.
“It’s helped me realize that I can get through more bumps — and cause the bumping, just being able to get physical with everybody,” he said. “As long as I’m on the court, if you need me to play the one, two, three or four, I’ll play it. Even the five — put me in there, Coach.”
(Photo of, from left, Ugonna Onyenso, Zvonimir Ivisic and DJ Wagner: Courtesy of UK Athletics)