Every opposing coach has said some variation of the same thought after playing against Kentucky so far this season. From the two exhibition games to the blowout victories to the near-upset of No. 1 Kansas, the assessment has been universal.
John Calipari has a good basketball team as it is. But when he gets one or two or all three of his sidelined 7-footers back on the court?
“That’s going to be a hard team to deal with.”
That was KU head coach Bill Self, relieved after his Jayhawks pulled off an 89-84 comeback victory over the Cats in Chicago last week and realistic about the type of talent his Kentucky counterpart has amassed in Lexington.
Aaron Bradshaw and Ugonna Onyenso are still working their way back from offseason injuries. Bradshaw — a versatile 7-1 freshman with sky-high potential — is closer to a return than Onyenso, the shot-blocking sophomore who played sparingly last season.
But Zvonimir Ivisic — a 7-2 freshman from Croatia — is apparently ready to go. He just needs to be given the green light to get out on the court.
The NCAA has not yet ruled on Ivisic’s eligibility for the 2023-24 season, despite the fact that Kentucky plays its fifth game Monday night.
What, exactly, is the NCAA doing?
The convoluted path toward getting “Big Z” onto the court has obviously frustrated Calipari and many around UK’s program, from his delayed enrollment to the eligibility limbo the 20-year-old currently finds himself in. Meanwhile, the undersized Cats have been going with 6-9 forward Tre Mitchell at the 5 position. He played all but 48 seconds of last week’s game against Kansas, getting beaten and battered all night long by 7-2 big man Hunter Dickinson, who finished with 27 points and 21 rebounds. The physicality shown by the undersized Mitchell was admirable — and UK won’t face many like Dickinson all season — but the game illustrated the need for Kentucky to get one of those bigs on the court.
“When these guys come back, we’ll figure it out,” Calipari said.
Ivisic’s case is bound to get a resolution soon. Here’s what the NCAA has been doing.
Ivisic eligibility process
Ivisic committed to Kentucky on Aug. 1 and was expected to be in Lexington by the end of that month, but a lengthy delay in the university admissions process pushed his arrival on campus to Oct. 12, the day before Big Blue Madness.
A quirk of the academic calendar allowed Ivisic to get to UK in time to enroll in “part-of-term” courses — and become academically eligible — but his status as an amateur is what’s keeping him sidelined. Since Ivisic played for a professional team in Europe — SC Derby, based in Montenegro — the UK program was expecting his background to be closely scrutinized by the NCAA upon his arrival in the United States.
Calipari spoke briefly on the case last week, noting that the delay was not the fault of the NCAA, which got a late start on the process due to Ivisic’s relatively late commitment and arrival.
“It is what it is. It’s not the NCAA,” Calipari said. “They get information, they ask questions, they get answers, they ask questions, they get answers — from the (pro) club and everybody. And that’s where it is right now.”
The NCAA does not comment on the status of individual eligibility cases — nor will UK — but an NCAA spokesperson did answer general questions related to Ivisic’s situation posed by the Herald-Leader over the past few days.
Here are the particulars that apply to Ivisic:
All Division I athletes must register with the NCAA Eligibility Center and provide information regarding their past participation in organized sports. After that, the NCAA can ask follow-up questions to gather additional information relevant to a player’s amateur status.
As Calipari alluded, that process can become a back-and-forth that takes several rounds of questions, answers and information-gathering to complete. The NCAA, the school, the player and the player’s former professional team are all active in that process.
The NCAA spokesperson specifically used “contracts” as an example of the “additional information” that is pursued in such cases, and that has been one of the sticking points in Ivisic’s process.
Among the stated circumstances reviewed as part of the amateurism process are a player’s previous involvement with a professional team, signing a contract with a pro team, and “receiving payment or preferential treatment/benefits for playing sports” — all of which are clearly questions related to Ivisic’s past.
Even in the current landscape that allows players to profit off their name, image and likeness, professional athletes are not allowed to compete in college basketball. Therefore, international players that have any plans to play for an American college team in the future must preserve their amateurism by making sure they enter into pro contracts in the proper manner.
Such players are not permitted to accept “more than actual and necessary expenses” for their athletic abilities. Examples of “actual and necessary expenses” include meals, lodging and transportation related to practice or competition, coaching and instruction, apparel and equipment related to the team, and medical insurance and health care related to competition. Other “reasonable” expenses — such as laundry money — are also permissible.
Basically, a player cannot be paid to compete and remain an amateur. And, simple as that sounds, it can often take a painstaking amount of documentation to ensure that players have gone about the process the correct way in order to preserve their amateur status.
That’s where the multiple rounds of follow-up questions involving all parties come into play, and completing that process to make sure Ivisic never accepted payment for his basketball skills alone takes more time than just handing over a stack of papers.
Looking to UCLA
Throughout this process, UK officials have kept an eye on events transpiring on the other side of the country for possible signs in Ivisic’s case.
UCLA brought in two international recruits — both former players on professional teams — over the summer, and each had to go through the same process Ivisic is involved in now. (It’s also worth noting that Ivisic is not the only player waiting for a ruling, and the NCAA is currently looking into multiple cases of a similar nature, thus delaying his process even more.)
Mara’s case was seemingly the most complex. The 7-3 center from Spain played for a pro team in his home country, and that club’s general manager told the Los Angeles Times last month that Mara — a projected first-round pick in next year’s NBA draft — was still under contract with the team and had an agent since the age of 15. The team’s GM also told the newspaper that the club had sued Mara in Spain for breach of contract and was seeking more than $600,000 as an exit fee.
The contentious nature of that situation — along with the public statements made by the professional team — led many in college basketball circles, especially those at UK, to believe that Mara’s case would be much more difficult to win than Ivisic’s.
Mara was ruled eligible by the NCAA on Nov. 3 — three days before the start of the season — and is quickly emerging as a key player for the Bruins.
Buyuktuncel, a 6-9 forward from Turkey, was cleared by the NCAA over the weekend.
SC Derby has not responded to the Herald-Leader’s request for comment on Ivisic’s contract status, but there has been no indication that the team is not cooperating with the NCAA process or is not supportive of the UK freshman’s attempts to play college basketball.
What’s next for Ivisic?
As Ivisic continues to wait for a ruling, he has been cleared to practice with the Wildcats.
Players in his situation are permitted to practice for 45 days before they need to be certified as an amateur. Ivisic’s clock started Oct. 13 — the day of Big Blue Madness — even though he didn’t actually participate in his first full practice with the team until Oct. 18.
The NCAA spokesperson told the Herald-Leader that this practice period is a strict 45 days from the start of participation, so the physical setbacks that Ivisic has experienced thus far that kept him off the practice floor do not buy him any additional time. His 45-day period is set to expire next week — right around the UK-Miami game on Nov. 28 — and at that point he must be certified in order to practice or compete with the team.
If there is no judgment on Ivisic’s case by then — or if the NCAA rules that he is not an amateur — UK would be able to appeal and preserve his ability to practice until that appeals process is exhausted. If that process concludes and the NCAA has made a final determination that Ivisic is not eligible, he would not be able to practice with the team.
International players in similar situations have also been able to play for their college teams after serving suspensions related to their past participation with professional teams. The hope on UK’s end is that Ivisic will simply be cleared for immediate competition once the NCAA gathers all the facts and makes its initial ruling, but sitting out for a minimal number of games could also be an avenue to get Ivisic onto the court relatively soon. He’s also already missed four regular-season games — if he’s not cleared by Monday night, that would be a fifth game — and that could be taken into consideration in his case.
While Calipari has tried to temper the immediate expectations surrounding Ivisic — listed at No. 70 among ESPN’s top 100 prospects for the 2024 NBA draft — he’d obviously like to get the versatile 7-2 center on the court as soon as possible, even if he’s playing limited minutes in the early going. The UK coach was hoping he would be available for the Kansas game last week.
“He’s only practiced about six days with us. Maybe seven, since he’s been here,” Calipari said last Monday. “... But it would be nice to throw him in the game and reward him for all that he’s been through.”
St. Joseph’s at No. 17 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: St. Joseph’s 3-1, Kentucky 3-1
Series: Kentucky leads 2-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 83-68 on March 20, 1997, in the NCAA Tournament West Regional semifinals at San Jose, California