For the first time in more than fifty years, Kentucky Basketball has lost three straight home games after falling to Gonzaga. Kentucky has also lost four of six and has gone from likely being a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament to now being closer to the bubble.
Up next, the Wildcats host the Ole Miss Rebels on Tuesday.
Led by former National Coach of the Year Chris Beard, the Rebels are currently eighth in the SEC, falling back to reality after a 13-0 start in the non-conference. While they are just 3-2 over their last five games, Ole Miss is playing some of their best basketball of the season.
Of those five games, three have been Quad I games, beating Texas A&M on the road and nearly upsetting South Carolina last week.
The Rebels are firmly on the bubble and in need of some resume-building wins. With that, they will likely come into Rupp Arena similar to Gonzaga, playing with nothing to lose, against a young Kentucky team that’s struggled to guard air.
Here’s what to watch for when the Cats take on the Rebels.
Perimeter (or any) Defense
Unlike the traditional Chris Beard team, who are stout defensively, this Ole Miss team is the opposite, having one of the best offenses in the SEC. They don’t play at a fast pace, but they don’t turn the ball over and shoot the 3 at a high clip, ranking 11th in the country as of Monday evening
Last week, John Calipari talked about the perimeter defense being an area that Kentucky needed to focus on.
“We gotta guard the three-ball better. We shoot it so well, that should be our advantage. We can’t be even.”
This will be a good contest to see where Kentucky stands. If the 3-point battle is even, that will suggest a closer game than Kentucky wants.
Avoid Turnover Bug
While this Ole Miss team is just 132nd in KenPom defensive efficiency, they are one of the best in steals and blocks. Their backcourt is pesky, and they will look to pressure guards and be aggressive in looking to steal some extra possessions.
Fortunately, Kentucky has been great at taking care of the ball this season. However, in two of their losses, South Carolina and Gonzaga, there have been key stretches where a handful of self-inflicted mistakes and turnovers have come back to bite them at the end of a close game.
That said, Kentucky should be able to take advantage of Ole Miss’ aggressiveness on off-ball cuts and screens going toward the basket and on the perimeter.
Can Frontcourt Step Up?
With Tre Mitchell out with injury, there has been heightened criticism of Kentucky’s three 7-footers. Playing more minutes with Mitchell out, they haven’t rebounded or defended at the level Kentucky needs them to.
In their last game against Gonzaga, the trio combined for just seven rebounds, and Gonzaga scored 50 points in the paint.
Ole Miss does not rebound at the level that some of the teams that Kentucky has struggled against, but they do have a 7-footer of their own in former Western Kentucky transfer and Hopkinsville native Jamarion Sharp, who flirted with a triple-double against Kentucky back in 2021.
Kentucky needs more production from the 7-footers. If not, they will have to look at committing to the small ball approach they were so successful with at the beginning of the season, playing the 7-footers in spot minutes.
That may even be the best approach going forward, though we know Calipari will keep giving them minutes no matter how much they struggle.
In games played since Jan. 12 -- when Kentucky was 12-2 and rolling -- the Cats rank 213th (!!!) in defensive efficiency.— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_ATH) February 12, 2024
Not shockingly, a 4-5 record in that time. A thing no one seems to be saying out loud:
UK's defense has gotten dramatically worse by adding three 7-footers. https://t.co/3oxc14Pc4E
Opposing Players to Watch
G Matthew Murrell 6-4, 200 lbs
- 16.8 PPG (6th in SEC)
- 3.7 RPG
- 1.8 SPG (6th in SEC)
- 54 3PM (T-6th in SEC, 39.4% 3P)
G Jaylen Murray 5-11, 170 lbs
- 14.3 PPG
- 4.0 APG (7th in SEC)
- 54 3PM (T-6th in SEC, 42.5% 3P)
G Allen Flanigan 6-6, 215 lbs
- 15.7 PPG (9th in SEC)
- 6.7 RPG
- 1.7 SPG (8th in SEC)
Time: 9 PM EST on Feb. 12th
Location: Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center
TV Channel: ESPN will have TV coverage.
Announcers: Karl Ravech, Jay Bilas, and Marty Smith are calling the action.
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the radio call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
Replay: WatchESPN and SEC Network (check local listings).
Odds: DraftKings Sportsbook has Kentucky as a nine-point favorite and the over/under at 164.5. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Kentucky an 83.3% chance of victory, while EvanMiya is at 72.5%, BartTorvik is at 73%. KenPom is at 74%, and DRatings sits at 75.6%.
Send us your predictions in the comments section!