They’ve had a week off, now it’s time to bounce back.
Coming off one of the team’s worst outings of the season, the No. 18 Kentucky women’s basketball team will look to recover later on Sunday when the host the No. 6 Mississippi State Bulldogs at 5 p.m. on ESPN2.
IT'S GAME DAY, FOLKS.
We've got alllll the things going on:
— Kentucky WBB (@KentuckyWBB) February 16, 2020
The Wildcats haven’t played since last Sunday, when they suffered a brutal defeat at the hand of the Arkansas Razorbacks, falling 103-85 in Bud Walton Arena. It was the most points the ladies had allowed all season and spoiled the return of Rhyne Howard, who made a surprise appearance in the starting lineup after sitting out the previous three games with a fractured pinky.
In that game, Kentucky struggled throughout the entire affair. Arkansas’ 103 points were the most allowed by the ‘Cats all season and they gave up 65 points in just the second-half alone. The first quarter actually favored the ‘Cats, as they led 21-19 after the first 10 minutes. but Arkansas got hot from three and never cooled off. A typically elite defense on the side of Kentucky was exposed by the Hogs. If they repeat that same performance on Sunday, UK might be looking at an even worse defeat this time around.
If Arkansas isn’t considered one of the elite teams in the SEC, Mississippi State sure as hell is.
The Bulldogs are 22-3 on the season with a 10-1 record in the SEC (the only conference loss coming to No. 1 South Carolina, 81-79). They’re currently riding a six-game win streak that includes consecutive victories over ranked teams such as Tennessee and Texas A&M.
Here’s a basic stat overview of MSU and UK.
Mississippi State is coached by Vic Shaefer, who is in his 8th season with the Bulldogs and 15th overall season as a head coach.
Schaefer is a two-time National Coach of the Year (2018 and 2019) while recently becoming the quickest MSU coach to 200 wins in program history and second quickest in SEC history. He already holds the second-most wins in program history and also boasts the best winning percentage. The Bulldogs have won at least 20 games in seven straight seasons under Schaefer. They were an Elite 8 team last year after making the Final Four in both 2017 and 2018. As long as Schaefer is coaching down in Starkville, MSU is always going to be an SEC powerhouse. He completely turned around the Texas A&M program back in the mid-2000s, winning the national title in 2011.
But what makes Schaefer so good at what he does is how he develops elite talent. Victoria Vivians (2014-18) and Teaira McCowan (2015-19) terrorized Kentucky over the course of their college tenures and now have successful WNBA careers. Following in the footsteps of those two all-time greats at Mississippi State is senior guard Jordan Danberry.
Like Rhyne Howard, Danberry was tabbed to the Naismith Trophy Women’s Player of the Year 2020 Midseason watch list, consisting of the nation’s top-30 players.
Danberry is a graduate senior who received a fifth year of eligibility back in the summer and she’s making the most of an extra season. The 5-foot-8 guard leads the team in steals (68) and is second on the team in assists (3.2 per game) while scoring 12.6 points per game on over 51 percent shooting from the floor (good enough for ninth in the nation among all guards). She isn’t a threat from deep (just 1-4 from three all season) but can get to the free-throw line at will and is an elite on-ball defender.
Joining her in the starting backcourt is sophomore guard Myah Taylor, who is one of the premier floor generals in all of Divison I. She’s turned the ball over just 38 times this season which is coupled with a team-high 101 assists (for reference, Jaida Roper posts the highest assist/turnover ratio for Kentucky and she sits at 77 assists with 39 turnovers). Taylor isn’t a scoring threat (just 6.o points per game) and won’t take many shots from deep, but is another excellent defender that will help run the Bulldog offense at 5-foot-7.
In the post is where MSU makes a living. Their top two scorers are 6-foot-2 Rickea Jackson (14.2 ppg) and 6-foot-5 Jessika Carter (13.2 ppg).
Jackson, a freshman, leads the team in scoring while also pulling down 4.7 rebounds per game. She shoots 47.1 percent from the field and can step outside to knock down a shot from deep if necessary.
Carter is one of the nation’s top rebounders. She’s already corralled 225 rebounds this season, good enough for 9.0 per game with 107 of those boards coming on the offensive glass. Her height makes her a matchup nightmare and she shoots close to 60 percent from the field because of it. Her 47 blocks easily lead the team. She is strictly a post player, but one of the most dangerous Kentucky will face all season.
6-foot-1 junior Chloe Bibby rounds out the starting five for MSU. She slides in as a wing player in the lineup who can light it up from deep. She’s attempted the most triples on her team (28 more than the second-most) and knocks them down at a respectable 35.7 percent clip. She’s also the team’s second-leading rebounder, grabbing 5.6 boards per outing.
Off the bench, Schaefer brings in three rotational pieces; 6-foot-1 sophomore Xaria Wiggins, 5-foot-8 freshman JaMya Mingo-Young, and 5-foot-11 junior Andra Espinoza-Hunter. All three of them average over 4.0 points per game while Wiggins and Espinoza-Hunter have shot over 100 combined shots from beyond the arc. Bibby and Espinoza-Hunter have been tabbed the “Splash Sisters” by the MSU media guide (Arkansas did the same thing with their two snipers), hitting over 50 percent of the team’s triples on the season.
“They’re [Mississippi State] talented in every position,” Head coach Matthew Mitchell said on Friday. “They’re really fast on the parameter, they have one of the top freshmen in the conference who is such a dynamic player, their postgame has a lot of size and athleticism there. So, they’re a complete team and playing well right now. They’re on a great roll
Mississippi State has already recorded 10 wins this season against teams ranked inside the RPI Top 100. They’ve typically been defensive-minded units under coach Schafer, but they’re getting it done on both ends of the floor this season.
The Bulldogs +22.1 scoring margin is sixth in the country and their 80.0 points per game ranks 11th. Four MSU players shoot over 50 percent from the field, leading to the team posting an overall field goal percentage of 47.1 – tops in the SEC. They posted a program single-game scoring record of 124 points in a win over Murray State earlier this season. The Bulldogs then proceeded to drop 122 points just three days later in a win over Troy.
They actually attempt the fourth-fewest threes among all SEC teams, doing most of their damage in the paint. They don’t even need to look for those shots; 40 percent of the team’s misses are rebounded by themselves. 347 offensive rebounds on the season have turned into 370 second-chance points. Going up against a notoriously undersized Kentucky team, they’ll surely look to use that to their advantage early and often. 57 percent of MSU’s points this season have come in the paint.
The offense has been special for coach Schafer and company, but they still pride themselves on defense, first and foremost.
Earning the nickname “Secretary of Defense”, Schaefer has produced another nationally ranked group on that end of the floor. MSU forces opponents into 21.8 turnovers per game, tops in the SEC and just slightly ahead of Kentucky’s 20.3 forced per game. The Bulldogs have forced opposing teams into at least 20 turnovers on 20 different occasions this season (Kentucky has done so 16 times). While the ‘Cats are known as a team prone to taking charges (42 taken by the team, Roper leads the team with 12), MSU is on another level.
According to their media guide, Mississippi State has taken 83 charges this season, FORTY of them coming just from just Myah Taylor. While I have to admit, that sounds way off, it would be a mind-melting stat if it were true. Statistically, they should draw at least three fouls at Kentucky.
It’s going to take the best all-around performance of the season for Kentucky to steal an upset victory. The Bulldogs are one of the hottest teams in the country and UK is coming off a deflating loss. The good news is Kentucky has had seven whole days to prepare for this matchup. Rhyne Howard will be seven days healthier after looking rusty in her first game back. Chasity Patterson is coming off her two best scoring performances of her career in the last three games. The ‘Cats will need them at their peak and energized efforts from every single player, especially on the glass.
“She’s [Howard] not 100 percent,” Head coach Matthew Mitchell continued. “But she played with tremendous effort and energy in practice, and she looked really good yesterday. So, she’ll give us everything that she has, and I thought that was a good experience for us at Arkansas on Sunday to learn what she can do and how to work around the hand brace.”