Win or go home. It is that simple.
The Kentucky Wildcats have not been in this position this early in the year since 2013. But if the Cats have any dreams of playing in the big dance, they have to win the SEC Tournament.
Survive and advance. And the first team in their way is Mississippi State.
This will not be the first time Kentucky has matched up with the Bulldogs this season. You probably remember their first game as “The Dontaie Allen Game.” John Calipari got tossed, Bruiser Flint kept Dontaie Allen in the game with a green light, and the rest was history. Allen hit 7/11 three-pointers as part of his 23-point effort, and Kentucky came out of Starkville with a double-overtime victory.
Like many other moments this season, fans hoped that game was the turning point. However, the Wildcats have gone 7-9 since that game and dug themselves a hole that they can only get out of with an SEC Tournament championship.
But the Wildcats are a different team in many ways at this point. Davion Mintz has emerged as the consistent leader of the team and is now starting at point guard. Jacob Toppin is in the starting rotation. Isaiah Jackson has put some polish on his offensive game. BJ Boston has settled in a bit. And Dontaie Allen is back on the end of the bench.
Similarly, the Bulldogs have gone 8-9 in the span, mostly feeding off of the bottom of the SEC. The most notable victory for Mississippi State since that matchup came directly after the loss to Kentucky as they took down the Missouri Tigers.
Sophomore guards DJ Stewart and Iverson Molinar lead the Bulldogs in scoring, with 16.5 and 16.4 points per game, respectively. Molinar could be a real problem for Kentucky as he has hit 44.6% of his three-point attempts this season. Jacob Toppin has been drawing the top defensive assignment for Kentucky in recent games, so it will be interesting to see which of these guards he will start the game on.
The only other Bulldog averaging double figures is sophomore forward Tolu Smith at 12.7 points to go with a team-high 8.6 rebounds per game.
The Bulldogs average a respectable 34.9% shooting from deep (112th nationally) but only attempt 15.4 threes per game (340th).
One area Mississippi State excels is rebounding, as the Bulldog rank 30th in offensive boards per game and 12th in opponent defensive rebounds per game. However, the first matchup saw Kentucky out-rebounded Mississippi State 48-46 while the Cats hauled in 19 offensive boards compared to 17 for the Bulldogs.
This is a game of desperation for the Cats. They have struggled down the stretch of many games to close even with substantial leads. So how will they play when they potentially have only 40 minutes of season left? We will find out at noon on Thursday.
Kentucky Wildcats (9-15) vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs (14-13)
Game Time: 12 pm ET on Thursday, March 11
Location: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN
TV Channel: SEC Network
Online Stream: WatchESPN and fuboTV (free trial).
Radio: Tom Leach 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).
Last Game Box Scores: UK | MSU
Odds: Kentucky opened as a 2.5-point favorite. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Kentucky a 51.9% chance at winning. KenPom gives the Cats a 58% chance at scoring the win.
Predictions: TeamRankings has the Cats winning 68-65, while numberFire went with a 69-68 triumph for Big Blue Nation. KenPom projects a 66-64 victory for Kentucky.