Kentucky Wildcats vs. Illinois St. Redbirds Pick & Prediction DECEMBER 29th 2023


Of all the good signs No. 8 Kentucky has provided its fans in a 9-2 start, its ability to shoot well and often from long range might be its best.

The Wildcats hope to display it again Friday night when they close their non-conference schedule against Illinois State in Lexington, Ky.

Recent John Calipari teams have played inside-out and often overpowered opponents in the lane but haven’t always been able to shoot over the top of a packed defense. The current team has already enjoyed four games in which it has shot at least 48 percent from deep while trying 20 or more shots from beyond the arc, including their last one — a 95-76 rout of downtrodden Louisville on Thursday.

Kentucky was 12 of 25 from distance that night, getting 30 points from Antonio Reeves. He has been a model of efficiency this season, averaging a team-high 18.3 points per game on 50.7 percent shooting from the field.

Calipari said Reeves has been freed up more often this year because of the presence of several scoring threats on the floor.

“You don’t have to make the hardest play,” Calipari said. “Whoever you throw to can play basketball. They can dribble, pass and shoot, so quit trying to make really hard plays.”

Reeves, who is making 45.5 percent of his shots from 3-point range, is averaging nearly four more points per game this season than he did in 2022-23. He averaged 20.1 points two seasons ago when he played at Illinois State, so this game holds special meaning.

Meanwhile, the Redbirds (8-4) are also playing their last non-conference game before they enter the grind of Missouri Valley Conference play. They’re coming off an 85-64 rout of Southeast Missouri State on Thursday that saw Darius Burford record 22 points on just 11 shot attempts.

It was Illinois State’s largest margin of victory against a Division I team in two years.

“We haven’t seen a win like this in a while,” Burford said. “My two years here, I can’t remember it. That’s huge for us and huge for our confidence. Everybody is seeing some shots go in.”

The Redbirds have made some expected improvements under second-year coach Ryan Pedon, a former Ohio State assistant coach who endured an 11-21 season in 2022-23 to start his career. Chief among them has been defense, a sore spot last season. They’re holding opponents to 65.4 points per game on 41.2 percent shooting.

Burford is the leading scorer at 13.7 points per game, while Southern Illinois transfer Dalton Banks is averaging a career-high 10.9 points while pacing the team in assists at 3.7. Illinois State has struggled from the 3-point line, making only 28.8 percent of its attempts.

This will be just the second meeting of the programs. Kentucky recorded a 75-63 win on Nov. 30, 2015.

–Field Level Media

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