Tuesday January 25th (9:00pm) in Rupp Arena, ESPN Network
(Image Courtesy of A Sea of Blue and @BigBlueDrew33)
Opponent: Mississippi State Bulldogs (13-5, 5-2)
While typically the rivalry between these Cats and Dawgs is heated in the football months, in basketball, there isn’t much of a feud. Kentucky leads the series all-time 92-19. However, this is a different Mississippi State team.
Fresh off a revenge blowout victory over their in-state rival Ole Miss, Ben Howland has this team fired up. Even though they dropped a game to Florida on the road, the Bulldogs have some quality wins over Arkansas and Alabama. In the non-conference, Miss State’s only other losses have come to an underwhelming Louisville squad on a neutral site and a home loss to the Golden Gophers of Minnesota. This Bulldog team is not to be taken lightly.
What to Expect from Mississippi State:
Mississippi State’s offense has been exceptionally good this season, with an adjusted offensive efficiency of 114.4, which is 22nd in the nation. While they shoot a respectable 32.8% from deep, only 23.2% of their points come from three pointers. They play with some pace, but nothing exceptionally fast. Kentucky, even without TyTy Washington, should have no problem stopping this team if they can stay in front of Mississippi State’s guards, specifically Iverson Molinar.
Iverson Molinar vs Ole Miss (Image courtesy of CBSSports.com)
Molinar, along with Tolu Smith, are the two names you need to pay attention to for Miss State. If the Dawgs can pull off the upset, these two will be leading the charge. Molinar leads the team in both points and assists with 17.7 & 4.3. He is 3rd in the SEC in scoring and 5th in field goal percentage. Kentucky’s backcourt will have its hands full containing Molinar. His ability to blow by defenders and drive to the basket is unlike any of the guards Kentucky has seen in the SEC. If the backcourt can stay in front of him and force him to take tough jump shots, they stand a good chance to win.
Tolu Smith is another major contributor for Miss State. Smith averages 13.1 ppg along with 6.6 rpg. The 6-11, 245lb PF shoots an effective 61% from 2. While he is a major contributor, he is far from some of the other big men that Oscar and co. have played this season.
Defensively, Miss State does a great job at blocking shots (36th in the nation, 13.2%) and getting steals (22nd in the nation, 12.8%). I say it all the time on the Beers & Buckets podcast, but defense travels. Kentucky should expect a tough showing from the Bulldogs on the defensive end. However, Kentucky has faced better defenses than Mississippi State statistically, so there shouldn’t be too much worry there.
Mississippi State’s perimeter pressure isn’t very strong, allowing opponents to shoot 34.3% from deep. Kellan Grady should be able to get the shots he wants in this game. While Kentucky doesn’t do a great job at getting to the line mainly due to their style of play, Mississippi State opponents shoot 72.8% from FT against them. In a game where we might not see TyTy Washington play due the rolled ankle he suffered in Auburn, we could see a lot more Cats attacking the basket and drawing fouls Tuesday night.
Other Names to Watch:
Shakeel Moore, the transfer from NC State, in my opinion, is the X-factor for this team. Similar to how Kentucky uses Kellan Grady, Miss State will look to get Moore going early, by running sets for him on the wing to get open shots. Kentucky’s perimeter defense this season has been pretty good, 44th in the nation. Kentucky can continue this trend by forcing Moore to drive or pass rather than give him open looks from three.
Other names you may recognize from this team are Garrison Brooks from UNC, Rocket Watts from Michigan State, and former Kentucky commit and Memphis transfer D.J. Jeffries. Watch out for Cameron Matthews. The 6’7” wing/guard is shooting a scorching 50% from deep, averaging 8 3PAs with 4 FGM per game. The tale is as old as time, a random player coming into Rupp Arena and shooting the lights out. Don't be surprised if Cameron Matthews has one of those games.
Keys to Success
Key #1 - Win the turnover battle.
Okay, this seems obvious. We should always strive to win the turnover battle, I get that. However, Iverson Molinar is so quick and is great in transition, we cannot allow him easy scoring opportunities from live-ball turnovers. Take care of the ball on offense and on defense, continue to apply pressure and deny easy looks.
Key #2 - Switch on Defense/Go Under Screens
Force Miss State to take tough shots. Against Auburn, Wheeler and Oscar’s pick n’ roll defense was poor. I can guarantee Howland will use that as the game plan on offense. Iverson Molinar and Tolu Smith or Garrison Brooks will be running the PnR early and often to create high-percentage shots. Wheeler can go under the screen to force Molinar to shoot a jumper or pass out. I expect the PnR defense was an emphasis of focus after Saturday’s loss at Auburn. I also wouldn't be surprised if Collins logged more minutes in this game to counter the PnR with his length. A big game from Collins could be a confidence boost for this team.
Key #3 - Get Kellan Grady More Shots!!!
Assuming at this point that TyTy is out due to injury, the next man up for go-to scoring is Kellan Grady. Against Auburn, Grady only logged 9 shot attempts. Coincidentally, 9 is the amount of minutes TyTy played. Kellan Grady is an experienced 2000 point scorer and a major contributor to this Kentucky team, he needs more than 9 shot attempts in 40 minutes. Let’s get him cooking early.
The Bottom Line
Mississippi State’s biggest wins have come at home (Arkansas and Alabama). Their two conference losses have come to statistically worse teams on the road (Ole Miss and Florida). No team is an automatic win, but if Kentucky has an offensive showing like they did against Auburn, even without TyTy, they stand a good chance to win this game.
TyTy Washington is listed as day-to-day according to Adam Zagoria, but with a big upcoming road game against Kansas on Saturday, I wouldn’t expect Calipari to push TyTy to come back early, mainly as a precautionary measure.
KenPom is predicting Kentucky to win this game 79-68. Kentucky has an 85.9% chance to win this game according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. Let’s hope the Cats can get back in the W column and build some confidence going into Phog Allen on Saturday!