LEXINGTON – The Kentucky Wildcats beat the Mississippi State Bulldogs 85-79 Tuesday night but didn’t do a whole lot to ease the concerns of their fan base.
Simply put, this was a game UK won because it was at Rupp Arena. Had this game been played in Starkville and the Wildcats played at a similar level, Kentucky would have lost.
That’s not to suggest Coach John Calipari’s Wildcats are not a good team. They are. And Mississippi State appears to be a better team than its 13-12 record (5-6 in the SEC) would suggest.
I’m just saying that for those of us hoping Kentucky would come out with renewed resolve off an 81-77 loss at Vanderbilt, and a players-only team meeting over the weekend ... well, we were disappointed.
This game also didn’t do a lot to ease concerns that the Wildcats have problems executing down the stretch. They nearly blew an 82-70 lead Tuesday night.
Still, UK improves to 18-7 overall and 6-5 in the SEC and figures to go to 19-7 and 7-5 with a home victory over South Carolina on Saturday (4 p.m. on SEC Network).
Kentucky still has a chance to build momentum in the home stretch this regular season and make a memorable NCAA Tournament run. A chance. I wouldn’t bet on it, but the possibility is there.
Best we can hope for, isn’t it? Until possibly a nearly entirely new UK team comes around next winter.
It was disconcerting how poorly Kentucky played early in Tuesday’s game, falling behind 5-0 30 seconds into the game and 24-13 just a few minutes later.
“The beginning of the game was so ugly, so passive,” Calipari said. “I mean we just had no fire, no fight.”
Calipari responded by having his team press man to man.
“I said, ‘You know what, we’re pressing man to man,’’’ he explained. “If you choose to go (fall) back, I’m subbing you. If you don’t want to get up there and battle, then I’m taking you out.”
Calipari also said his team was passive on offense, settling for three-point shots because they didn’t want the physicality of taking the ball inside.
That, too, straightened out as the game went on, with Kentucky rallying back within 40-39 by halftime, and then starting the second with a 19-10 run that gave the Wildcats momentum they never completely lost. Though they tried.
Brandon Knight led another balanced effort for Kentucky with 24 points. Doron Lamb added 20 points. Lamb started in place of junior Darius Miller, who injured his groin in the Vandy game, missed practice on Monday, but came off the bench against Mississippi State with a good effort – 13 points on five of nine shooting.
Terrence Jones had a nice game with 17 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Josh Harrellson added nine points and six rebounds.
Junior DeAndre Liggins played his worst game of the season, with just two points and three rebounds in 15 foul-plagued minutes.
“He wasn’t there today,” Calipari said of Liggins. “Wasn’t there defensively. Offensively, he wasn’t making the plays we needed him to make. But, he’s fine. We’ve had every guy here have some off nights. This was his. He’ll be back next game.”
Senior swing man Ravern Johnson came off the bench to lead Mississippi State with 21 points. Jalen Steele added 17 points, Dee Bost had 16 and stocky center Renardo Sidney had 11 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury suggested Kentucky fans may be worrying too much.
“I guess this extends their (home winning) streak to 31 in a row here at Rupp, and the reason they have won 31 in a row is because they are a great basketball team, and Cal does a great job with them,” Stansbury said. “Last year you could take away a few things, and this year it is difficult to take anything away from them because they are so skilled one through four. Those guys can pass, dribble and shoot it.”
Calipari suggested his team’s struggles in conference have been overblown at least a tad.
“Let me say this, what I told them: I’m glad we won,” Calipari said. “You win and you march on.”
Calipari indicated that the SEC is simply much stronger than it has been billed, though perhaps his days in Conference USA play a role in his perspective.
“This league is a strong league,” he says of the SEC. “All this stuff about this league, that league...the other leagues. Let me explain to you, our league is as strong as any of them. Florida, Vandy, Tennessee, us. That team (Mississippi State) is a talented team. They’re going to get it together.
“You talk about Georgia, okay?’’ Calipari added. “All of a sudden, I’m telling you there are six teams that will be in the SEC Tournament (he downgraded that to five teams 15 minutes later). You know what? I’ll put what happens in the NCAA Tournament with our league against just about anybody elses (apparently he remembered the Big East at this point). Some of these guys, because of the (well deserved) media hype, might get nine teams in. But the reality of it is, this is a strong league. Every game is a war.”