International Prospect’s Eligibility Saga Finally Resolved
The NCAA declared Kentucky freshman Zvonimir “Big Z” Ivisic eligible on Saturday, clearing the way for the 7-foot Croatian to make his highly-anticipated debut against Georgia after a months-long eligibility battle.
Ivisic wasted no time showcasing his talent in his first game as a Wildcat, recording 8 points, 4 rebounds and 3 blocks in just 14 minutes off the bench. His presence was felt on both ends of the court as No. 8 Kentucky held off Georgia 105-96 at Rupp Arena.
“It felt great to finally be out there playing,” Ivisic said after the game. “The crowd gave me goosebumps when I checked in for the first time.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari lauded the NCAA’s decision to finally clear Ivisic. He was hopeful the freshman could provide a much-needed boost to the Wildcats’ frontcourt.
“I want to thank the NCAA staff who was working with us on this,” Calipari said earlier in the week. “This is about this young man and his opportunity to live out a dream he has worked very hard for.”
Winding Journey to Eligibility
Ivisic originally signed with Kentucky as part of its 2023 recruiting class after playing for KK Split on loan from KK Zadar in Croatia.
He enrolled at Kentucky last summer but his eligibility immediately came into question due to his prior professional experience overseas. Ivisic parted ways with his Croatian club in June 2022 with the intent of maintaining his amateur status and retaining NCAA eligibility.
However, the months-long investigation delayed his Kentucky debut despite optimism from Calipari that Ivisic could contribute right away this season.
“If the NCAA does the right thing, he’s going to help us,” Calipari said in October after Ivisic was held out of Big Blue Madness. “If they don’t, I’ll be very disappointed.”
|Ivisic Eligibility Status
|Enrolls at Kentucky but eligibility in question
|Held out of Big Blue Madness while under NCAA review
|Continues practicing with team during eligibility battle
|Kentucky launches public support campaign as Ivisic awaits ruling
|January 21, 2023
|NCAA declares Ivisic eligible hours before Kentucky tips off vs. Georgia
The protracted review centers around Ivisic’s amateur playing status in Europe. Since he did not receive payment other than expenses from KK Split, Kentucky filed an amateurism certification request in early January seeking his immediate eligibility.
The certification allows prospective student-athletes to compete right away if they meet specific criteria regarding previous amateur participation. Kentucky also mounted a massive public support campaign for Ivisic under the social media hashtag #FreeBigZ.
Despite no timetable for a resolution, Ivisic continued practicing with the team over the last several months. His long-awaited clearance finally came through on Saturday morning.
Making an Instant Impact
Ivisic checked into the game with 11:52 left in the first half to a loud ovation from the Rupp Arena crowd. He made his presence felt early on with a block and rebound on the defensive end.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Ivisic said. “I was just happy to finally get my chance.”
He showcased his versatility by stepping out and knocking down a 3-pointer late in the first half. Ivisic played sparingly but effectively in 14 minutes, helping Kentucky maintain a slim 41-37 halftime lead.
Ivisic saw more playing time in the second half with Oscar Tshiebwe battling foul trouble. He threw down a powerful two-handed dunk that brought the crowd to its feet. Ivisic patrolled the paint well with his 7-foot-1 frame, altering several shots at the rim.
The freshman was all smiles after the final buzzer, posing for pictures with teammates to celebrate his long-awaited debut. He figures to take on a larger role moving forward as Kentucky continues Southeastern Conference play.
“I’m just going to keep getting better every time I step on the court,” Ivisic said. “The best is yet to come.”
What This Means for Kentucky
Ivisic addressed one of Kentucky’s biggest weaknesses with his strong debut — interior defense. The Wildcats ranked dead last in the SEC in blocks entering Saturday’s matchup.
His shot-blocking ability around the rim could bolster Kentucky’s defense as it braces for a daunting second-half schedule. Five of the Wildcats’ final 16 regular season games come against ranked opponents.
On offense, Ivisic provides another credible threat with his shooting range as a stretch-five. He enables coach John Calipari to get creative with smaller lineups that can spread the floor. Kentucky knocked down a season-high 11 3-pointers as Ivisic’s arrival opened up driving lanes.
With Oscar Tshiebwe still working his way back from a knee injury, Ivisic’s availability also lessens the pressure on the reigning National Player of the Year. He can help shoulder the load in the frontcourt alongside upperclassmen Jacob Toppin and Lance Ware.
Most importantly, Ivisic makes eighth-ranked Kentucky even more dangerous with the NCAA Tournament looming large in March. Analysts pegged the Wildcats as a potential Final Four team before the season — now that Ivisic has entered the fray, they have the depth and talent to make a serious title run.
Ivisic wasted no time backing up Calipari’s lofty praise after months of waiting in eligibility limbo. The Wildcats are thrilled to finally unleash their prized international prospect as they chase championships over the season’s home stretch.
For long-suffering Kentucky fans, Ivisic’s spectacular debut was worth the wait.
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