When opposing coaches from overmatched programs complete their postgame media duties inside Rupp Arena, they usually field plenty of questions about Kentucky.
Few, if any, media members who primarily cover these programs travel to Lexington, which leaves a room full of Kentucky-focused reporters to ask questions, which typically revolve around the Wildcats’ standout players.
This formula held true just before Christmas, when Florida A&M — one of the worst teams in the nation — came to Lexington and lost by 20.
FAMU head coach Robert McCullum took his seat at his postgame press conference and began to praise Kentucky in accordance with the questions he was asked, but his celebration of one Kentucky player stood out from the rest.
“My vocabulary is not good (enough) to expound on what I think of (Cason) Wallace,” McCullum said of Kentucky’s standout freshman guard, who had just scored a career-high 27 points against the Rattlers.
“To find a young player, a freshman, that plays that way on both ends is really impressive,” McCullum continued. “Normally, for young players, it takes a while to get them to buy in on defense, but he plays on both ends. He can hurt you in so many ways offensively. He can get to the basket, he can get his shot off the dribble and he can catch and shoot. Then you look at his size. Small guards are going to have a lot of difficulty trying to guard him.”
Minutes later, Wallace’s own head coach chimed in.
“What he did today is he made shots so you couldn’t go under on the pick-and-roll,” UK Coach John Calipari said of Wallace’s high-scoring performance against FAMU.
This comment directly addresses the most impressive aspect of Wallace’s season so far.
On a Kentucky roster that was billed as having multiple three-point shooting specialists in CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves, it’s Wallace who has been UK’s biggest threat from distance.
Wallace is shooting 47.5% (29-for-61) on three-pointers this season, a mark far above the already-good UK team average of 39%.
Wallace isn’t listed on the NCAA stats website leaderboard of the best three-point shooters in the country, despite being among that group.
This is due to Wallace not meeting a threshold of averaging at least five three-point attempts per game (Wallace averages 4.69 three-point tries per game).
His 47.5% success rate from deep would rank 13th in the nation among all players, and would slot Wallace as the fifth-best three-point shooter among major conference players.
Plenty was expected from Wallace when he came to Lexington: He arrived as a five-star recruit who was ranked as the No. 10 player in the 2022 recruiting class by the 247Sports Composite.
But the scout on Wallace was always skewed toward his defensive ability, and the disruptions he could cause as a 6-foot-4, nearly 200-pound guard with a penchant for filling passing lanes.
His offensive game was seen as productive and versatile, with plenty of upside given his pro potential (Wallace was recently projected by ESPN’s Jonathan Givony as the ninth overall pick in this summer’s NBA Draft).
But to be an elite three-point shooter after only 13 college games?
Nobody saw that coming.
“I saw him a lot when he was young so I always knew he could make shots,” UK assistant coach K.T. Turner recently said. “Now, I’m not going to sit here and say I would think he would be shooting the ball this well, but I always knew he could make shots.”
Work ethic allows Wallace to become elite three-point shooter
Another person who has seen plenty of Wallace’s game is Ani Umana, director of 5-State Hoop Report and someone who watched Wallace extensively during his prep career at Richardson High School in the suburbs of Dallas.
Umana first watched Wallace at 12 years old, and he’s witnessed Wallace’s development from a non-shooting threat early in his high school career to a proficient distance shooter.
“Just to see him develop a jumper where people, early in his high school career, were talking about if he could shoot it, and then he became someone that could really make shots,” Umana said. “Could I have predicted that? No. But am I surprised because I know what his work ethic is? I’m not too surprised because I know the kid really works at it.”
A longtime figure in Wallace’s basketball development is Terrel Harris, a cousin of Wallace who played four seasons at Oklahoma State and later won an NBA championship with the Miami Heat.
“Cason, if he puts in the work, he just knows what he’s capable of doing,” Umana added. “That kid’s confidence has never wavered because of a bad game or (because) he missed two in a row or anything like that. He’s still wanting to take those shots and knock them down. ... He’s confident in what he’s worked on and his ability.”
Wallace has already shown that trait during his college career.
The low point of Kentucky’s season so far — offensively at least — came during a loss to UCLA in New York City when the Wildcats produced a measly 53 points, their lowest scoring total since March 2019.
That game also featured Wallace’s worst shooting night as a Wildcat: 2-for-13 from the field and 1-for-7 from three-point range.
The three games since have seen Wallace respond with his three highest scoring totals as a college player.
“It feels good when it goes up, gotta have confidence in this game so, just a lot of confidence and knowing that I will make the shot,” Wallace said after the FAMU game of his distance shooting. “I feel like I have to keep taking those shots and you have to live with the result.”
Wallace provides offensive versatility
At this point in the season — which appears likely to be Wallace’s only one at Kentucky — the Wildcats’ offense is straightforward.
The primary option is to toss the ball inside to reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, and let the big man dictate where the possession goes from there: Battling inside for a close-range shot, kicking the ball out to an open perimeter player or finding a way to otherwise move the ball when multiple opponents collapse on Tshiebwe.
Wallace represents an ideal counter to this, especially given the recent shooting struggles experienced by Fredrick (currently injured) and Reeves.
“It spaces the court out so much,” Wallace said about UK hitting shots from outside the paint. “We can have anything we want: Oscar down low, or if they want to help on Oscar we could hit the three. But it depends on what they want to give up.”
The more diverse Kentucky’s scoring production is, the better chance the Wildcats have to win games.
This plain and simple fact was illustrated Saturday afternoon, when senior forward Jacob Toppin broke out for a career-high 24 points in UK’s blowout rivalry win against Louisville.
Kentucky’s ability to force the defense into conflict between doubling or tripling the Wildcats’ skilled big man and staying within touching distance of perimeter players is central to UK’s ability to score.
Wallace is one of a precious few UK players to consistently succeed within this structure this season.
He’s also had plenty of chances to do so. The indispensable Wallace leads UK with 32.7 minutes played per game.
“Cason has a maturity to him,” said Sahvir Wheeler, Wallace’s backcourt partner. “He’s level-headed, even-keeled. He doesn’t get too high. He doesn’t get too low. That’s been a good thing for us. ... He has a great mind for the game.”
“Everybody in the building respects him, the way he goes about his work and how he prepares and practices,” added Turner, UK’s newest assistant coach.
The workmanlike nature of Wallace’s routine — the one that’s gained him the adoration of fans and respect of teammates — has long been ingrained in him.
It’s benefited Kentucky immensely so far, and figures to continue to do so until Wallace leaves to become the latest lottery pick out of Lexington.
LSU at Kentucky
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Records: LSU 12-1 (1-0 SEC), Kentucky 9-4 (0-1)
Series:Kentucky leads 91-28
Last meeting: Kentucky won 71-66 on Feb. 23, 2022, in Lexington