"...Catfish are jumpin', that paddle wheel thumpin', black water keeps rollin' on past just the same."
And a thumpin' is what the Wildcats are in for if we take Ole Miss lightly. Saturday night at 8:30pm in the Tad Smith Coliseum, the 'Cats take their 7-game winning streak to Oxford for a tussle with the Rebs.
Mississippi is 10-3 this year, and like the Wildcats have not lost a home game. They have lost 3 times on the road, the latest a bit of an upset to St. Louis (who, incidentally, beat Houston as just as UK did). Common opponents include MVSU (W 72-49) and Memphis (L 70-82). The brand-new head man for Ole Miss is Andy Kennedy, former Cincinnati interim head coach after his boss and mentor, Bob Huggins, was run off in one of the most rancorous coach-administration debacles in history. Kennedy is a solid coach who performed ably as Huggins' replacement in 2005, but UC did wind up in the NIT with a 21-13 record.
Ole Miss by the numbers
Ole Miss is almost as efficient offensively as Kentucky, ranked 70th and 43rd respectively. Ole Miss runs a 3-guard lineup and is lead in scoring by Bam Doyne, a Senior shooting guard averaging 18 ppg. Clarence Sanders is another shooting guard and second leading scorer, averaging almost 16 ppg. Both guards are fine shooters, averaging 38 and 43% respectively from 3-point range. Both shoot over 80% from the free throw line, and Done averages over 6 rebounds/game. Todd Abernathy is the main ball-handler and distributor in this lineup, averaging 5.2 assists/game against only 1.5 turnovers. Abernathy can also shoot the rock, logging in at a solid 43% from long range and 85% at the free throw stripe.
Unlike Houston, Ole Miss has a serious post threat in Dwayne Curtis, a 6'8" 280# space-gobbling center who is one of the most underrated players in the SEC. Curtis is playing his 6th game back after a broken foot sidelined him for the first quarter of the seson. Curtis averages 13pts/10rbs a game, 52% from the field, and gets offensive rebounds at over a 30% clip. Curtis, like his teammates, shoots well from the line at 73%. Kenny Williams, a 6'8" 240# transfer from St. Petersburg CC is the Rebel's starting power forward. Williams averages almost 8 points and 6 rebounds, shoots 52% from the field and is not a threat to shoot the 3. Williams is the lone starter averaging under 70% from the line at 61%.
Ole Miss has a total of 12 players averaging double-digit minutes. Jeremy Parnell and Trey Hampton provide the main front court relief, while Seton Hall transfer Justin Cerasoli and Enil Polynice lead the depth chart for the back court.
Defensively, Ole Miss is not very efficient at all, standing at 156th overall against Kentucky's 27th. Ole Miss is holding teams to an effective FG% of 47%, against UK opponent's 43%. Worse, they are allowing teams to shoot 35% from 3-point range, vs. UK's 29%. Ole Miss does force the opponents into about 3 more turnovers per game than UK, while giving the ball away 3 less times, on average, than UK does.
What all this means
The Rebels are statistically inferior to Kentucky in most ways, and their personnel are not as skilled nor as athletic as the Wildcats overall. However, Ole Miss is playing at home in a place known to be one of the toughest spots in the league to win, and...did I mention it's a place where the Rebs are undefeated this year? Andy Kennedy is a fine young coach, and has his somewhat undermanned team performing at a high level. The recent loss to St. Louis on the road is sure to put a bee in Andy's bonnet, and I have no doubt the Rebs will be heated up and ready to pull the upset today.
Another thing operating in Ole Miss' favor is that their game is tailor-made to give Kentucky's defense trouble. Mississippi plays the game inside-out, and as we all know by now, that can give Smith's ball-line defense some difficulty by way of good three-point looks (as amply illustrated by the drive-and-kick game Houston played against us). Offensively, Ole Miss is a decent team, and capable of putting up points and shooting a high percentage against almost anyone. Fortunately for Kentucky, Ole Miss does not play very good defense.
Kentucky counters with one of the best defenses in the land, improving ball-handling and Randolph Morris. Unlike Houston or Eastern Kentucky, the Rebels have the bodies to play Morris in the post. But I wouldn't expect too much one-on-one, as Kennedy knows that he doesn't have a defender capable of holding Randy off down low without help. Expect double teams to come from the top, and some open looks for Kentucky's shooters. Can they make them? They haven't lately.
This game is danger time for the streaking Wildcats. Unlike Houston, it is not likely UK will take the Rebs lightly, but respecting Ole Miss is not going to be enough. Kennedy is likely to zone UK for most of the game to hold down Morris, as well as throw some presses and man-to-man in there for change-ups. Kentucky must run the offense through Morris when possible, but more importantly they need to find gaps in the zone and exploit them. They have done this effectively a time or two this year, but have a nasty tendency to fall back on 3-point bombs without any good ball movement. If that is their formula this game, the 'Cats are likely to be staring at 4 in the "L" column.
On the defensive side of the ledger, the Wildcats must respect the perimeter shooting of Ole Miss - it is very good. Nor can UK forget about the Rebel's big man down low. Curtis has hurt us more than once, and Morris & Co. will have their hands full with him. In other words, this will be our biggest defensive challenge in a while, and although we match up well with Ole Miss, they are not as bereft of talent as Eastern nor as small as Houston. This will be a good test for the Wildcats. We will know a lot more about this Kentucky team's progress after this game. I expect an ugly, low scoring affair unless the Wildcats do something out of character and shoot the ball well from outside. Failing that, a defensive struggle is almost certain.