A star was born Saturday in college basketball, so let’s start with the basics, since we’re going to be talking a LOT about this guy over the next two-plus months.
His name is spelled Zvonimir Ivišić; ZVON-uh-meer EE-VEE-sitch is how you pronounce it.
But you can call him “Big Z.”
The Kentucky stretch center made his collegiate debut on Saturday and immediately lifted the Wildcats’ ceiling well beyond Big Z’s gaudy standing reach. After months of waiting for approval from the NCAA, the 7-foot-2 crafty Croatian was finally cleared just hours before No. 8 UK ran past Georgia 105-96.
How would this ultra-hyped European prospect fare in his first game? Would he even play more than a handful of minutes?
Well, what happened in the first half inside Rupp Arena was one of the most joyous and unexpectedly awesome scenes we’ll see this season. Big Z came off the bench four minutes into the first half and wasted literally no time announcing his presence: a block 31 seconds in, a flashy behind-the-back assist on an Antonio Reeves 3-pointer, and then a 4-of-4 showing from the field, all of them treys.
The last one led to this Croatian sensation channeling none other than Michael Jordan in the 1992 Finals vs. Portland.
Big Z shrugged his shoulders as Kentucky fans were losing their minds, and understandably so. And already-pretty-good team suddenly looked nearly invincible thanks to Big Z’s big introduction. I caught every possession live, and by halftime I thought I’d just watched one of the best scenes/stretches to come out of Rupp in John Calipari’s 15-year tenure. At that point, Ivišić had 11 points of 4-of-4 shooting, three rebounds, two blocks, two steals … in just eight minutes.
His biggest issue was working a water bottle. Who is this guy!
Ivišić wound up playing 16 minutes and tallying 15 points. He even got into a little trouble; his only basket in the second half prompted a technical foul for hanging on the rim too long on a dunk with 4:46 remaining that got Kentucky to the 100-point threshold.
We need more of this fella ASAP. (We’ll get it Tuesday in Kentucky’s next game at South Carolina.)
The frustrating part is it took 75 days into the season for the NCAA to clear the guy. Every fan of college hoops should be furious, as we’ve been robbed of 16 games of what-could-have-been with such a fun player, someone who’s a positive for Kentucky and the sport. The reason for the hold-up: Ivišić played in professional leagues overseas in recent years but maintained his amateur status. Things got so urgent, Kentucky fans raised money in recent weeks to advertise a “Free Big Z” billboard near the NCAA’s eligibility center.
Coincidence or not, the NCAA finally stopped dawdling and came to a verdict a mere few days later.
With Big Z in the fold, the discussion around Kentucky has changed. The outlook on the next 10-12 weeks in this sport feels different after what happened Saturday in Lexington. The Wildcats were a national title contender without Big Z. Now they’ve got this cheat code coming off the bench? This looks like the deepest team in the country. This looks like a team that can run and score with any team in America — UConn and Purdue included.
Nobody knows how good/consistent Ivišić will be, but even the threat of his 7-2 frame shooting, swatting, traipsing up and down the floor — it expands Kentucky’s profile. The Wildcats have arguably the best freshman (and inarguably the most consistent) in Reed Sheppard. Ho-hum, 12 points of 4-of-5 3-point shooting Saturday for him. There’s also the electrifying Rob Dillingham, the good-but-still-improving DJ Wagner and the still-developing frontcourt duo of Justin Edwards and Aaron Bradshaw.
Wait, I’ve only mentioned the freshmen.
Grad transfer Tre Mitchell had a game-high 23 points vs. Georgia. Reeves, another grad transfer, added 21. Either of those vets can carry UK for stretches. The roster goes even deeper with 7-foot sophomore Ugonna Onyenso, who owns the No. 1 defensive rebounding rate in the SEC.
And 105 points? Georgia might not be an NCAA Tournament team, but it hadn’t dropped a road game until Saturday. Calipari’s crew has defensive issues that have to get corrected, but this is a top-five offense in the sport. You get to 100 in league play against a half-decent team, that’s an eye-opener. As I wrote in the second week of the season, things are different for UK this year because Calipari has a roster that is flat-out entertaining to watch. It’s the first time in at least five years that’s been the case.
Now, in strolls Big Z, who seems like he’ll be the most entertaining of them all.
With the Croatian sensation ready to light up college hoops for the remainder of the winter, one of college hoops’ most watchable teams now doubles as one of its most dangerous. Big Z is free and Kentucky basketball is fun, fearless, fantastic.