Kentucky Wildcats (1-6) at Mississippi State Bulldogs (6-3)
Location: Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Mississippi.
Game Time: 6:00 pm EST on Saturday, January 2nd.
TV Channel: Today’s game can be seen on the SEC Network.
Announcers: Mike Morgan and Jon Sundvold will call the action.
Radio: With Tom Leach covering the Gator Bowl (woot woot), Darren Headrick and Mike Pratt will have the UK radio network call on 630 AM, 98.1 FM in Lexington and on the UK Sports Network.
Replay: WatchESPN and the SEC Network (check local listings).
Odds: Mississippi State opened as a 1-point favorite. The line is now Kentucky with a 2-point spread. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Mississippi State a 64.5% chance at victory. KenPom gives Kentucky a 47% chance of winning.
Also, Kentucky will be without Terrence Clarke tonight, as UK just announced the freshman guard is out with an ankle injury.
In such a weird, upside-down year, should we have expected anything else?
Kentucky’s No. 1 recruiting class and group of talented transfers have come out and struggled mightily en route to arguably the worst start to a season in program history.
The Wildcats are 1-6, held a secret scrimmage against Transylvania in the middle of the week, and are desperate for answers on how to play together. The hope is things are about to turn around as a new season begins in the form of conference play.
Usually, SEC play is when we start to see John Calipari’s team click each season. But when the Wildcats open conference play on Saturday, there is nothing to indicate that this group will hit its stride soon. The defense is playing well, but the offense has crippled this team in virtually every loss. The Cats have scored 64, 62 (twice), 63 (twice) and 59 points in their six losses. You’re not gonna win many games against even average teams while struggling just to hit 60 points.
Kentucky will now play the Mississippi State Bulldogs at 6 pm on Saturday, looking ahead to a tall task of putting together a conference record that will get the Wildcats into the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs come in with a record of 6-3 with losses to Clemson, Liberty, and Dayton.
The good news for the Bulldogs is they’re coming off their first win over a Power 5 team this season, an 83-73 triumph at Georgia on Wednesday. Georgia was previously unbeaten, so this was a really solid win for Mississippi State, who’s currently ranked 71st by KenPom.
To put that in perspective, Kentucky has losses to Richmond (57), Georgia Tech (74) and Notre Dame (91), so the Bulldogs will be a similar quality of opponent as the teams that have already upset the Cats.
The Bulldogs are led in scoring by sophomore guard Iverson Molinar, who averages 18.7 points per game. Their offensive approach is very top-heavy with three players putting up almost 70% of the point total.
Sophomore guard D.J. Stewart Jr. and sophomore forward Tolu Smith round out the three-headed scoring threat, putting up 18.2 and 13.1 points per game, respectively. Smith leads the team in rebounding at 8.6 per game.
One offensive strength for the Bulldogs has been an Achilles heel of Kentucky, and that is three-point shooting. Mississippi State is making 38.3% of their shots from deep as a team, which ranks 36th nationally compared to Kentucky hitting just 25% from deep, which ranks 320th.
Mississippi State is coming off a 12/27 (44.4%) three-point performance in Athens. Stewart (47.5%) and Molinar (51.9%) are absolutely shooting the lights out. If those two get hot, this could get away from Kentucky very quickly.
Mississippi State does rank 214th nationally in three-point defense, which could help Kentucky’s struggling shooters find some rhythm.
In addition, the Cats’ three-point defense ranks 37th, so they may have what it takes to slow down the Bulldogs’ hot shooting.
One similar strength both teams have is rebounding, as Kentucky ranks 58th nationally in rebounds per game and 21st in offensive boards per game compared to the Bulldogs ranking 31st and 12th respectively.
The Wildcats’ rotation still seems to be in limbo. Cam’Ron Fletcher is back with the team, but he will likely not be available on Saturday. Coach Cal says that Dontaie Allen will get his chance to shine in the SEC opener, but has too much pressure been put on the in-state talent? Depending on who you believe, he was somewhere between Carlton Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Reggie Miller during the secret scrimmage against Transylvania.
BJ Boston still leads the Wildcats in scoring, but his play has been very underwhelming as of late. Kentucky’s best player recently has been Creighton transfer Davion Mintz, who scored 19 points in Kentucky’s narrow loss against Louisville. Mintz is also the only member of the Wildcats that is shooting better than 35% from deep.
In order to win this game, Kentucky will have to defend the three-point line, get something on the offensive end from the frontcourt players, and find a way to get Boston and Terrence Clarke going.
Will Kentucky lose their 7th game in a row? Or will SEC play turn out to be a new season for the Wildcats?