The Kentucky Wildcats are headed to Starkville, Mississippi, where they’ll take on the Bulldogs. But, of course, Saturday’s game isn’t the first time these teams will go head-to-head this season. The Cats already secured the series’ Rupp Arena victory, defeating MSU 76-55 on January 22, 2019. The win gave then-No. 8 UK their fifth consecutive victory.
So, how’d they do it then? And how can they do it again? Let’s take a look.
This was the biggest advantage the Cats had last time they played the Dogs. The teams’ last matchup came right as Kentucky’s defense was falling into place, and the Wildcats’ efforts were on full display.
Against Kentucky, Mississippi State had their worst offensive performance of the season to date, shooting a season-low 31 percent from the field, 15 percent from the three-point line and a season-low 55 points.
Owensboro native Aric Holman took just two shot attempts in 20 minutes and missed them both. On the season, he leads the team in rebounds per game (7.2), but he grabbed just two boards against the Cats. Plus, Holman fouled out of the game, along with Reggie Perry, who finished with eight points.
Perimeter defense was a big part of UK’s success. Coming into the game, the Bulldogs were making 38 percent of their long-range shots. Inside Rupp, they went 3-20 for 15 percent.
“I think that’s when we started stepping up a lot more on defense,” Ashton Hagans said Friday when asked to look back to the first matchup. “We started coming together as a team, realizing what we needed to do and getting better at stopping the three. That’s when we were getting that all together, just coming along and getting better from there.”
Quinndary Witherspoon, on the other hand, did have a good offensive night for the Bulldogs – he finished with 19 points. He’ll be high on Kentucky’s watch list in Starkville.
Although only two Wildcats hit double-digit point totals (PJ Washington finished with 21; Tyler Herro had 18), the Cats’ January win really was a group effort. Reid Travis was a serious force under the basket, and he was a big limiter for Holman as well as fellow big man Abdul Ado, who also finished with zero points. EJ Montgomery didn’t have a flawless night, but he “changed the game“ with a big block down the stretch. Nick Richards added a block of his own to go along with six rebounds.
Five different Wildcats had at least one steal against the Bulldogs, and Kentucky finished with eight steals in total (Keldon Johnson had three; Hagans had two). The steals, combined with Kentucky’s improving defense, helped generate 15 MSU turnovers, which the Cats were able to turn into 17 points.
It was after this game that PJ Washington admitted he can sometimes get “lackadaisical,” and Coach Calipari noted they have to do a better job of making sure Washington knows that’s unacceptable – his “motor” has to always stay on in order for the Cats to reach their potential. With a physical team like Mississippi State, Kentucky’s big men can’t get lackadaisical.
In January, Mississippi State was coming off of two league wins – a three-point victory over Florida and a 16-point win on the road at Vanderbilt. But this time around, they’ll have a little more fire under them. The Bulldogs just lost at home to No. 21 LSU in overtime Wednesday night (92-88). They certainly won’t overlook Kentucky (white-out, anyone?). But after securing a 21-point victory over MSU a few weeks ago, it could be all too easy for the Wildcats to overlook this matchup, right?
“Not with this team. This team is focused,” assistant coach Tony Barbee said Friday afternoon. “These guys have been practicing, going after each other, competing against each other, they’re having fun together. It doesn’t matter the opponent on the floor, they’re going to come to play every night.”
“They’re going to come out with a chip on their shoulder,” the point guard said. “They lost at home [Wednesday]. So, they’re going to come out ready to fight. We’ve just got to be prepared and stay focused.”
After narrowly losing to a ranked opponent just days ago, the Bulldogs will be out for blood Saturday afternoon. Kentucky can’t let them have any.