LEXINGTON — The Kentucky Wildcats showed at least glimpses of what they are capable of in a 73-66 win over then sixth-ranked Louisville Jan. 28.
The Wildcats displayed maturity on an emotional level, playing the better part of the second half minus a cramping Julius Randle, while also looking more like a team on a physical level.
Now, after a holiday stretch of three-a-day practices and plenty of free time together off the court, we’ll see if coach John Calipari’s team can build on that brief, upward swing as Kentucky heads into Southeastern Conference play.
The first step is tonight as 14th-rated Kentucky (10-3) hosts Mississippi State at 8 at Rupp Arena. The game will be televised on the SEC TV Network.
“Hopefully, defensively, we’ll ratchet it up a bit,” Calipari said Tuesday when asked what he’s looking for in this game. “Hopefully we’ll hold the ball less. If you have it, you’re a passer; if you don’t, you’re a scorer, which means when you do catch the pass, you’re in an attack mode, a shooting mode.”
Calipari said he also wants his players to play with an improved rhythm … to play like a bunch that’s starting to get it, so to speak.
“There’s a sequence to the game,” Calipari explained. “If it’s not there, you don’t take a bad shot. You don’t throw it to somebody just to throw it. There’s a sequence to how we play, and they are getting better at it.
“And I think we’re getting better at the pick and roll, both offensively and defensively. But, until you get into games ...”
UK officials made freshman guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison available to the media Tuesday, and the twins both suggested that fans should be optimistic about what they will see in conference play.
“I think we have become better as a team,” Andrew said. “There’s more togetherness. We’re getting better defensively, talking more … all that stuff.
“We’ve definitely become a better team offensively and defensively,” Aaron said. “And we’ve come together more as a team.”
The Harrison twins said that the players have gotten along well from Day 1, but they also said that the holidays marked the first extended stretch of time when they have spent a lot of time together off the court, without distractions.
“We all liked each other before,” Andrew said. “But now we’re closer. We all talk and laugh like we didn’t before, so I think it’s very helpful. We just started to talk more. We had no choice because we really had no one to talk to besides each other.”
“We’ve had to spend more time together, and it was really good for us as a team on and off the court,” Aaron said. “We’ve all gotten to know each other better.”
Calipari notes that camaraderie off the court does not guarantee success on it, but it sure helps.
“Every team I’ve coached has come together,” Calipari said. “Now, I don’t know what that means on the basketball court, but I do know they know each other better and they have a better feel for each other, and it starts there in my mind.”
Aaron said the win over Louisville was a much-needed confidence booster.
“The Louisville game definitely opened our eyes and showed us we all just need to play hard, play together and buy in,” Aaron said. “That game really helped our team confidence. It showed us that if we play together, we can do a lot of things.”
There are still plenty of kinks to be worked out, of course, and tonight’s opponent, Mississippi State, is a good place to start.
The Bulldogs come into play, like Kentucky, at 10-3, but that’s astonishingly deceptive.
Mississippi State has played, arguably, the easiest schedule in Division I basketball.
The Bulldogs’ losses have been 87-68 at Utah State, 71-61 to TCU and 82-66 to UNLV. Their best win was probably a 71-66 victory over South Florida.
MSU is coming off a Thursday win 77-63 over Maryland Eastern Shore.
Craig Sword, a 6-foot-3 sophomore guard, leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 14.3 points per game, and 6-9 sophomore forward Gavin Ware leads in rebounding at 8.9 boards per game.
The Harrisons said they are excited to return to game action after the long layoff.
“I’m very excited to play a game,” Andrew said. “I’m just ready to see some new faces on the court.”