Last night, the Kentucky Wildcats welcomed the Ole Miss Rebels into Rupp Arena, and the Rebels rudely made a determined effort to hand Kentucky their first loss of the season, and set them to 0-1 in conference. It didn’t quite happen, but it was a very near thing that wound up a 3-point UK win in overtime, the first extra session for the Wildcats this season and the first overtime game ever played between Ole Miss and Kentucky.
First of all, I think that we all have to recognize Ole Miss’ excellent play. The Rebels were volcanically hot for large chunks of the game, even though Kentucky managed to somehow hold them to an overall efficiency of less than 1.2 points/possession, primarily due to a large number of Rebel turnovers. But it’s a good thing they did cough it up, or the Wildcats might have found themselves defeated in regulation by a fairly convincing margin. Ole Miss wasn’t just hot, either — they executed their offense with precision, worked hard to get mismatches and exploited them. Defensively, their zone confounded Kentucky, although I think most of the blame for its efficiency goes on the Wildcats for poor zone offensive execution. Having said that, if the Rebels can continue to do the offensive execution part, they will win enough games in this league to make some noise, whether or not the hot shooting continues. Great game, Rebels.
Kentucky really didn’t play that badly, they just couldn’t stop the Rebels. It wasn’t that they didn’t do the right things, although sometimes they didn’t do them as well as they could or have, it was more that Ole Miss just executed their offensive strategy well. The biggest problem for me is how well the big people were able to play; Sebastian Saiz, M.J. Rhett, and Dwight Coleby all shot fairly high percentages. They didn’t get up a lot of shots, but when they did, they mostly scored. Our interior defense has been better than that for most of the year.
The guard play, frankly, was difficult for Kentucky. When the Harrisons and Booker were in the game together, the matchups were mostly okay, which is probably why Andrew and Aaron both logged very high numbers of minutes — 40 and 32 respectively — while Booker played 21. A significant (but by no means the only) problem came when Tyler Ulis was in the game, and the bigger Mississippi guards just jumped over him for clean looks Even Stefan Moody, with his freakish 46" vertical (which I believe, by the way), was too "tall" for Ulis once they got it past half court. For the most part, Ulis has been able to mitigate his lack of size, and he’ll get better at it as he matures. In this game, he really was a target.
Ole Miss was able to take advantage of Kentucky’s switching, primarily by working it until they got a quickness or size mismatch. With their depth of wing players, they were able to get a lot of looks, although many of them weren’t all that clean. It didn’t matter. Clean, dirty, or draped, Ole Miss made shots, and in the process made Kentucky look very average defensively.
Let me point out right here that Kentucky is anything but average defensively. They are one of the best defensive teams in America, even if it didn’t look that way last night. But the strength of the Kentucky defense is inside, and when the inside guys have a tough day, the defense has a tough day, comparatively speaking. Combine that with 53% shooting on 17 3-point shots, and you have a recipe for an upset.
Ole Miss box
The big thing we all see is Kentucky getting outshot significantly. Usually, when you see a near 6% differential in eFG%, the outcome doesn’t go to the team with the lower number. eFG% is by far the biggest of the four factors when it comes to winning the game.
Kentucky won the offensive glass, but only by a little. Now, Ole Miss is not a bad offensive rebounding team, and they really didn’t do anything extraordinary against UK. But on the other hand, the Wildcats’ defensive rebounding woes continue to haunt. This was a problem in the Big Blue Bahamas, and it continues to need work today.
Turnover-wise, Kentucky played a great game. Any game around 15% turnovers with the way this team plays is admirable and praiseworthy.
Kentucky hasn’t excelled at free throw rate this year, but they are always competitive. If they lose, it is by small amounts, and FTR is really harder to quantify than it looks. For one thing, it really matters how many you make. Unfortunately for Kentucky, Mississippi made almost all of them.
Having said that, Kentucky shot a solid 70% from the line. Honestly, I’ll take that every game from this team, although I do think we can be better than that by at least 5%.
Kentucky continues to do a good job blocking shots, and stealing the ball. You might think with Old Miss’ offensive efficiency that UK didn’t play defense, but that’s just not so. UK blocked 7 shots and got 8% steals (slightly lower than they have been producing), so the obvious defensive stats are not an issue.
Offensively, Kentucky struggled against the Ole Miss zone, and I can’t figure out why. How many zones has Kentucky faced this season — 14? I don’t know, I think even North Carolina threw a zone at us.
Honestly, I’m beginning to doubt John Calipari’s ability to coach against a zone. I can’t otherwise explain the year-after-year bouts of abject futility we seem to have against a defense that the Wildcats should shred. Get the ball to Karl-Anthony Towns at the free throw line. Let him pass the ball when the zone collapses or shoot the 15-footer if it doesn’t. This is not hard. If we were seeing a bunch of 3-2 or 1-3-1, okay, I would get the struggles. But against a 2-3, there is one simple, and almost unstoppable solution. Why don’t the Wildcats use it?
Defensively, we have to forgive the Wildcats. They were slow in rotation at times, and they overplayed their man too much, but honestly, against a hot team, you just have to stay solid and weather the storm. Kentucky was able to do that by matching the offensive efficiency of the Rebels. I’m darn pleased by that, because Kentucky could’ve folded. They didn’t.
The game ball is a really tough call. I finally decided to call it a tie between Aaron Harrison and Willie Cauley-Stein. I almost threw Andrew in there as well, but I decided to give him an honorable mention. Aaron scored 26 points, missed only 1 out of 10 free throws, was 5-9 from 3 and had 2 assists. WCS only had 7 points, but he had 12 rebounds, 4 blocks, 3 steals, but 5 turnovers. WCS, however, likely saved the game for us down the stretch of regulation with a great defensive play. Trey Lyles got credit for the steal, but it was WCS who created the opportunity.
Andrew Harrison had a great game. He was solid defensively even when guys scored, he struggled making layups (as usual) but made 2-3 from the arc including a huge 3-pointer late in overtime to give the Wildcat a lead that would never be reversed. He threw in 6 rebounds, 5 assists and only 1 turnover along with 2 steals in the bargain.
Trey Lyles had a wild, all-over-the-place game. He was up, he was down, he was turning it over and missing shots, then he was making big blocks and plays. Overall, he was adequate. He struggled defending the smaller guys, but that’s what happens when you’re a power forward playing the three. Alex Poythress would have really been helpful in this game.
I thought Karl-Anthony Towns struggled, overall. he made shots early, and then missed a bunch of layups. He only managed 4 rebounds, and had no blocks (although I think he was robbed of one by a bogus foul call). Not his best.
Tyler Ulis was very good offensively with 7 assists and no turnovers. He was abused defensively, and there’s no nice way to say it. Sometimes that happens to freshmen. He’ll learn how to minimize the impact of his small size as he gets more experience.
Devin Booker had a super offensive game, but he was hot and cold defensively. Late in the game, he got better at not biting on Ole Miss head fakes, and he shot the ball really well from outside, making all his 3-point attempts. He needs to develop a midrange game, though.
Dakari Johnson was fairly efficient, but he struggled rebounding the ball. Calipari only played him 17 minutes, mostly as a consequence of the closeness of the game and his suspect free throw shooting, even though he was 2-3 from the line. But only 3 rebounds is just not enough for the big guy.
For whatever reason, Marcus Lee only saw 1 minute, but in that minute he ran out and trapped the ball near midcourt late in the first half, and forced a turnover that kept Mississippi from extending the lead.
Tying it all up
This was what I have been warning people about — it’s really, really tough to beat a hot team, and we will see some. If we see any this hot on the road, Kentucky is going to lose. It takes an extraordinary effort to win a game against an opponent as hot as Ole Miss was last night, and UK barely managed to eke out the necessary amount of toughness to win. But they did, and that is praiseworthy.
No team is perfect, and although this Wildcats group has fewer weaknesses than many, small teams that can make lots of threes are threats to Kentucky for two main reasons — they force the big guys away from the basket, creating driving lanes and space for interior passing, and the other is that the long rebounds from missed threes have proven to be trouble for the Wildcats all year. Usually, it doesn’t matter if you drive into the tall front line and try to hoist up something swattable, but Ole Miss took advantage of them in a way that almost led to a catastrophic home loss.
If this were a horse race, Kentucky would be said to have needed this race to get back into form. I think that’s what we saw here — Kentucky needing a game, and getting way more game than they expected. The Wildcats really played well on offense, but they ran into a team that their defense couldn’t stop consistently, and it almost cost them.
But it didn’t. Next up — Texas A&M in College Station.