When you rake in young talent every year like Kentucky does, you learn to accept the good that comes with the bad. We see the highs with explosive highlights, big wins, and impressive tournament runs late in the year.
When it comes to the lows, we tend to see young teams overlook and play down to lesser competition, panic on the big stage when the lights are at their brightest. We’ve seen both scenarios play out this year.
With the national spotlight on them, the Wildcats got destroyed to open the season against Duke. They later played down to their competition against Seton Hall and came away with a loss. Kentucky then managed two dominant performances against North Carolina and Louisville away from home, but then came out flat on the road against Alabama and ended up heading back to Lexington with a 77-75 loss.
With a standout performance on the road against No. 14 Auburn on Saturday, followed by Kansas coming to town this weekend, “trap game” is easily the first thought that comes to mind with Kentucky’s matchup with Mississippi State this evening at Rupp Arena.
During his afternoon press conference yesterday afternoon, Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee said with the Bulldogs ranked in the top 25 (No. 22), there’s no reason to believe this is a trap game for the Wildcats. They’ve got Kentucky’s “full attention.”
“You would say that if they weren’t ranked in the top 25 and as good and as talented and as experienced as any team in our league,” he said. “If those three factors weren’t there, yeah, maybe you could say trap game. Not with this Mississippi State team.
“They’re as good as any team in our league,” Barbee added. “Their depth. Their experience. They’ve got size. They’ve got guard play. They’re not deficient in any one area. So, for that reason, no, not a trap game at all. These guys got our full attention.”
Kentucky forward EJ Montgomery said Kansas hasn’t even crossed the team’s mind as of yet. They are focused on Mississippi State, and Mississippi State only.
“We haven’t even talked about Kansas yet, just working on Mississippi State,” he said. “We’re just trying to get that win first.”
For Kentucky sophomore PJ Washington, the Bulldogs are just as impressive as some of the other big-name opponents the Wildcats have played this season. As a result, they’re guaranteed to get their best shot when they hit the floor this evening.
“In the bigger games, we want it more,” he said. “We want to go out there and play tougher opponents. I feel like everybody is more excited when we play better teams, we just like playing good people.”
Why does this team enjoy matchups with elite competition so much? Washington said it’s a great indicator of where the team is compared to the other impressive teams throughout the nation. The idea that your opponent can come onto your floor and win forces Kentucky to play to the best of their abilities.
“It’s always great going against competitive teams, you get to see where you are,” he said. “On both ends of the floor, all 40 minutes, you’ve got to fight, so it’s great to have a group of guys that’s willing to do that. It’s always fun playing against someone that can beat you.”
One of the ways to defeat a top-25 opponent like Mississippi State? The infamous “kill” system John Calipari discussed at the start of the season. With a sample size of half a season to work with, the coaches and players have realized there is a specific number of kills that correlates with margin of victory.
“We have this thing, it’s called getting ‘kills’ where getting three stops in a row equals one kill,” Washington said. “We try to get eight a game, because the games we’ve done that, we’ve beaten teams by 20 points [or more]. So that’s our goal each game, get eight kills, so we’ve just got to step is up and lock down on defense.”