With only 6 games to go in the regular season, the Cats are working to ensure themselves the best possible spot in the post season. Despite the fact we're nationally ranked ahead of both LSU and Mississippi State, in the SEC we're currently ranked 5th, with Mississippi State at 3rd. (SEC standings apparently do not care about strength of schedule. Weird.)
And just as the Cats are jockeying for the best possible position, so is MSU. How can Coach Mitchell and crew make sure we send the Bulldogs home empty handed?
For one thing, we need to make sure yet another team doesn't come out and punch us in the mouth at the tip! Vanderbilt did just that on Sunday, playing a much more up-tempo game than expected and working their way out to an early 7 point lead in the first half. Then the Cats remembered which of the two clubs on the floor are the runners, and Vandy faded away in the 2nd half, never getting closer than within 3 points en route to an 82-68 loss. (The Cats have now beaten Vandy eight straight games, and that's just fun to type.)
Mississippi State is going to be a tough match-up, as they like to run and gun with the ball. They've also dropped 7 straight games to Kentucky, so in addition to the post-season race previously mentioned, these Dogs are going to be looking for revenge.
So now that we know we'll be challenged, let's identify the main challenges/challengers/people we'll be yelling at! MSU is a teeny bit better when you look at their offensive percentages: 41% to our 40% from the field, 34% to our 28% from beyond the arc, and 71% to our 67% from the charity stripe. Additionally the Bulldogs are an assist machine, averaging 13.3 per game to UK's 11.7.
Defensively, MSU is the 5th best scoring defense in the country, and lead the nation in 3 point defense. They're also the second best shot blocking squad in the SEC. But they aren't perfect: they've actually logged more turnovers AND personal fouls than UK, which I think makes them unique this season. (We can work with that!)
Players to watch include the most recently crowned SEC FOTW Morgan William and her Bulldog sister and previous SEC FOTW Victoria Vivians. These frosh lead State in points, which means we'll have a LOT of time to get to know them in the years to come. Vivians averages 14.2 points per game, and is a decent threat in all three scoring areas at 37% from the field, 32% from three-point range, and 73% from the line. William averages 9.4 points per game, shoots +34% from the field and beyond the arc, and knocks down a blistering 84% of her free throws. (Let's avoid fouling her, Cats!) The Bulldogs 3-5 players are also good shooters and 5'11" or taller.
The Bulldogs are basically a slightly taller but not necessarily better version of the Cats. We can beat them - let's look at how.
- Play an efficient but FAST game: The Dogs will try and run with us, but we are just a hair faster. Use that speed to force shots.
- Do we go small this game?: assuming Makayla's Achilles are ok with it, she can definitely outsprint our opposition. And since quite frankly our bigs have not been putting up the best numbers, I don't think the lack of size will hurt us.
- Attack their defense like crazy: Even if we go small, players like Linnae Harper and Jennifer O'Neill can bring serious pain to their match-ups.
- Hit the bunnies and the FTs: Really not much more to say there.
I think the X Factor for Kentucky right now is Makayla Epps at point. She's only been playing that spot for about a month and is REALLY starting to turn heads with her performance. The Y Factor is Linnae Harper: when that woman is on, she is ON. The question, as ever, is how do we flip that switch on consistently?
TL, DR: This is going to be a fantastic fight to the finish. You should watch.
Tipoff is at 7 PT EST on the SEC Network. If you're not in Lexington, we hope to see you here at ASoB to cheer our Cats onto victory! Until gametime - GO BIG BLUE!