After back-to-back losses, the Kentucky Wildcats are back to where they found themselves just over a month ago: Outside the NCAA Tournament bubble. However, in their remaining six games, they have four Quad 1 opportunities — and potentially five if Auburn can move back into the top 30 of the NET rankings.
The first of those opportunities comes on Wednesday as Kentucky travels to Starkville to take on a tough Mississippi State team. Led by new head coach, Chris Jans — who previously coached New Mexico State to four conference titles in five seasons — the Bulldogs are winners of five in a row, beating Arkansas, Missouri, and a ranked TCU team.
According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, both teams are on the bubble, so expect a war in Starkville. With that said, history is in favor of the Cats, as they have lost to Mississippi State just one time in the John Calipari era in 17 matchups. The lone loss came in the SEC tournament of a COVID shortened 2020-21 season, 74-73.
Saying this, plenty of these matchups have been thrillers that could have gone either way, including last season when Kentucky needed overtime to beat the Bulldogs at Rupp Arena.
The Wildcats could be shorthanded for the third game in a row, as CJ Fredrick or Sahvir Wheeler have yet to practice this week. Yet, the selection committee will not make exceptions for these injuries, and the Wildcats need to win, with or without them.
On his weekly call-in show, John Calipari mentioned that the team came together on Sunday to take responsibility for how they have been playing and to recommit to each other as they enter the final stretch of the season. It’s up to this team to write their story.
Let’s look at the keys to Wednesday’s matchup.
Keep Them Out of Transition and the Paint
Mississippi State has one of the best defenses in the country. In fact, they are ranked 4th in the KenPom defensive efficiency ratings. However, as strong as they are on the defensive end, they are nearly as poor on the offensive end. Ranked 175th in offensive efficiency, they are the second-worst offensive team in the SEC, behind South Carolina.
Expect a low-scoring game, as the Bulldogs have not scored more than 70 points in conference play, which coincidentally came against Arkansas this past weekend. To get their points, they rely on transition offense and points in the paint.
To defend this, the Wildcats will need to spring back on defense and be physical in the paint. Two things, that they have not been consistent at doing this season.
Crash the Defensive Glass
One of Mississippi State’s biggest strengths is offensive rebounding. Averaging 11.8 per game, the Bulldogs are statistically better than Kentucky by 0.2 rebounds.
The rebounding battle will be headlined between Oscar Tshiebwe and Mississippi State’s Tolu Smith. Just as Tshiebwe is Kentucky’s leading scorer and rebounder, Smith is the same for Mississippi State. Given that Tshiebwe has struggled with lesser players recently, a big effort will be needed to neutralize Smith.
Yet, Smith isn’t the only Bulldog that can rebound, as they have size and strength in their frontcourt. Their rotation consists of six guys that are at least 6-foot-7 and 22 pounds. For that reason, each Wildcat will need to do their part, matching the physicality and box out.
Make Smart Decisions
As Arkansas’s Eric Musselman said of Mississippi State earlier this season, they are “a high-steal, high-gamble team.” Averaging 9.4 steals per game, the Bulldogs steal the ball at the sixth-highest rate in the country.
Without Sahvir Wheeler in the last two games, errant passes have occurred too often, hurting themselves. This will have to change on Wednesday, as the Mississippi State defense will try to use steals to get themselves scoring opportunities in transition, to counter their poor offense.
If Kentucky can take care of the ball, it will force the Bulldogs to make plays within their half-court offense, which they have struggled to do.
Kentucky Wildcats (16-9) vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs (17-8)
Time/Date: 8:30 pm ET on Wednesday, February 15th, 2023
Location: Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Mississippi.
TV Channel: SEC Network
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the UK radio network call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
Replay: WatchESPN and SEC Network (check local listings).
Odds: DraftKings Sportsbook has Mississippi State tabbed as a 2.5-point favorite. ESPN’s matchup predictor has low confidence in the Cats, giving them just a 40% chance to win. Bart Torvik’s computer model continues to be low on the Wildcats and gives them a slimmer chance at 32%, while KenPom is at 37%.