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Why Tomorrow’s Mississippi State Game is the Most Important of Kentucky’s Season

Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

The rollercoaster that is the 2018-2019 Kentucky Wildcats season took another wild spin this weekend, when the Wildcats picked up a massive road win at Auburn on Saturday night.

The victory was everything that any Kentucky fan could have hoped for when the season began. Ashton Hagans was the fiery (and at times, potty-mouthed) leader that this team needs. Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson made clutch shot after clutch shot, and PJ Washington did all the little things needed down low to help the team win. Most importantly, Kentucky was a team that showed no fear. Auburn didn’t get back in the game because of some Kentucky meltdown, but instead because they are a big-time team that made big-time plays. But to Kentucky’s credit, every time the Tigers threw a punch, the Wildcats took it on the chin. Then they threw their own counterpunch until they knocked Auburn out for good and emerged with a massive victory.

Ultimately that was a gutty performance, and one that showed just how far this team has come. It also showed that when this club is locked in, there really aren’t any teams in college basketball they should fear. Kentucky already has a resume that includes wins at Auburn, at Louisville and against UNC on a neutral court, and by the way, that early win against UNC-Greensboro is better than most realize (Greensboro is currently sitting at 17-3 overall this season and in second place in their league standings). And with games this week against two more ranked foes, Mississippi State and Kansas, it isn’t inconceivable that the Wildcats could look up at this time next week and have just about the best resume in all of college basketball. Seriously, wins against Mississippi State and Kansas to go along with at Auburn, at Louisville and North Carolina would give the Wildcats just about the best resume in college hoops.

Of course to get that resume, they need to win both of those games.

And that my friends, brings me to the point of this article: To me, the Mississippi State game tomorrow night at Rupp Arena might just go down as the most important regular season game the Wildcats play all season long. That game will show us “who” this team. And what their ceiling truly is.

Now before we go further, I already know what some of you are thinking: “Torres, you so crazy!” Mississippi State isn’t even close to the biggest game on Kentucky’s schedule. The Wildcats have already played Duke, UNC and Louisville. They still have Kansas and two games left with Tennessee. How in the world is Mississippi State more important than those?

Well, the answer is simple really. No, Mississippi State isn’t Duke, UNC or Louisville. They certainly aren’t Tennessee or Kansas either. But what they are, is a good, veteran team that isn’t afraid to come into Rupp Arena and won’t be afraid of the “Kentucky” across the front of the Wildcats jerseys. The Bulldogs are a veteran, battle-tested team, with a senior point guard and four starters who are juniors or seniors. More importantly, at just 2-2 in the SEC with a gauntlet of games ahead, they absolutely have to win this game.

And to me, that’s why this game is so important for Kentucky, and why it will teach us so much about this team’s psyche and makeup: Will the Wildcats come out tough and hungry to pick up a win? Or coming off a massive road victory, will they come out with a sense of accomplishment and be too busy looking ahead to the weekend game against Kansas? Because I’ll tell you this: If Kentucky doesn’t come out focused tomorrow night, Mississippi State is good enough to pull off the upset.

That’s also why this game carries so much weight for the rest of the season. It isn’t about any one individual game, but instead, showing what the identity of this team is.

The bottom line is at this point, we already know Kentucky is a big game team. In their last three major games, against major teams, in major hostile environments, the Wildcats proved to be fearless. Wins at Louisville and Auburn are no joke, nor is a victory over North Carolina in Chicago. As we’ve learned, when the lights are bright, Kentucky comes out ready to go.

On the flip side, what we’ve also seen is that when it isn’t a major game and when the opponent isn’t quite so marquee, the Wildcats can also come out a little… meh. Remember, for all the excitement about the win at Auburn, this is also a team which fell behind 10-0 to Texas A&M before rallying back to win. This is the same team that fell behind to Vanderbilt as well. The Wildcats are also the same team that came out completely flat at Alabama and lost. Again, Mississippi State is not the kind of team you want to come out flat against, or fall behind by 10 or 12 points to. Do that and you will walk out of the arena with a loss.

And by the way, that doesn’t just go for Mississippi State, but just about everyone in the SEC. Sure, the focus right now is on Tennessee at the top of the standings. But make no mistake, there are plenty of others who will hand you a loss if you don’t come out ready to go, whether it’s LSU or Ole Miss, Florida, LSU, you name it. It also means that just as quickly as the good vibes of a win over Auburn or North Carolina can come, they can go with a two or a three game-losing streak. This Kentucky team is really good. But they aren’t invincible.

So who are the 2018-2019 Kentucky Wildcats?

A group who gets up for big games but can look past the lesser opponents?

Or a group full of dogs, who come out focused and ready to do whatever it takes to win every single time they take the court?

We’ll begin to find out on Tuesday night against Mississippi State.

(By the way, we spoke quite a bit about the Auburn game and what lies ahead for Kentucky on Monday’s Aaron Torres Sports Podcast. Click here to download today’s episode, and go back and listen to Episode 104 when Mississippi State coach Ben Howland joined the show)

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

11 Comments for Why Tomorrow’s Mississippi State Game is the Most Important of Kentucky’s Season

  1. dcforuk
    10:19 pm January 21, 2019 Permalink

    I’m not certain that it is as I think it falls into the preference category of “there’s right, there’s wrong and there’s preference” but you seem to make a good case for your preference! Momentum is a powerful for e for better or worse and it really sure would be nice to keep the momentum going heading into Kansas!

    • timbo
      7:04 am January 22, 2019 Permalink

      Therein lies its importance. It’s a trap team against a very good and unheralded team right after a game against a ranked road opponent and right before a game against a highly ranked blue-blood team in prime time.

  2. makeitstop
    10:38 pm January 21, 2019 Permalink

    Aaron, good analysis, and right on. First of all the next game is always most important, but as you noted this is a good MSU team w a good coach, and if we don’t play well, we lose. This game is a sign they get it or they don’t, and basically if u want a good seed, unless ur Duke, don’t lose at home.

    • trumpetguy
      10:44 pm January 21, 2019 Permalink

      Sorry, but State is 2-2 going into the FIFTH game…hardly a must win for them.

  3. michaelb
    10:55 pm January 21, 2019 Permalink

    I like how our team is good on the road . #RAWR

  4. michaelb
    11:00 pm January 21, 2019 Permalink

    The uk vs auburn chatter starts @ 16 minutes and 30 seconds

  5. Wynn
    11:39 pm January 21, 2019 Permalink

    Good stuff Aaron. Certainly a hot take but I agree that tomorrow, if you pardon the cliche, will tell us a lot about this team

  6. kuhlkat
    2:41 am January 22, 2019 Permalink

    Great article Aaron. I see MSU as a trap game.
    Would love to listen to your podcast but you are way too arrogant. Great writer though.

  7. Aar
    5:46 am January 22, 2019 Permalink

    So, it’s the biggest game of the season because it’s the next game. No, for reals? Despite the sarcasm, I intend no insult. From January through March all games are big. Quadrant 1 and 2 games are big because they’re big. Quadrant 3 & 4 games are big because a loss is a bad loss. When you’re in the top 10 and Kentucky you’re a Quadrant 1 game and the Super Bowl for all opponents. You need to rise to the challenge. We get it.

    Nice take with “this team gets up for big games”. My take is that every team needs a mid-season “breather”. 4 of the 5 games in December were this team’s 2nd through 5th Quadrant 1 and 2 games of the season. With Camp Cal, that was an intense part of the season. In the gauntlet from the Auburn game through the end of the season 12 of 14 games are Quadrant 1 & 2. So, no disrespect intended to good SEC opponents, the 5 games in the first half of January were the only opportunity for a breather in this season – kinda like the back stretch in the Derby. IMHO, they used that breather well, only took one loss and are now locked in for the stretch run.

    It is now that we see what this class of Cats are made of. Do they treat each successive opponent and game like their own biggest game of the season, start each half fast, keep the throttle down and finish off games? If so, this “toughest schedule in the country” will pay off with a number 1 seed. Go Cats, beat MSU!

    • Aar
      5:53 am January 22, 2019 Permalink

      Cal frequently says that good tournament teams need to have at least one 6 game win streak, preferably against quality opponents. From Southern Illinois through UNCG, this team has a 7 game win streak. Beating MSU extends the current streak to 5 games against higher quality opponents and you could say that this stretch mimics March with each game being tougher than the last. I like the way this schedule sets up for the stretch run.

  8. CahillsCrossingNT
    8:51 am January 22, 2019 Permalink

    Mississippi State is the only SEC team Calipari hasn’t lost to as UK’s coach. Hope that continues tonight, but the Bulldogs are quite capable of winning.