Mississippi State (7-7, 0-2 SEC) visits the #14-ranked Wildcats (12-3, 2-1) for a Tuesday evening contest. Game time at Rupp Arena is 6:00ct for ESPN.
“We’re going into a hornet’s nest,” Coach Ben Howland said. “The toughest place to play maybe in the country.”
It certainly has been Mississippi State’s toughest venue since opening in the late 1970s. Only twice have Bulldog teams left Rupp Arena with a win over the home team, in 1995 and 2009.
But then any sort of road trip success has been few and fleeting for Bulldog basketball in recent years. Howland’s first State team is now 0-3 as a true visitor, including Saturday’s 82-68 setback at Arkansas. This means the current crop of four-year seniors are 4-32 in hostile-court games. Though, three of those victories did come last season; at Auburn, Tennessee, and Missouri.
None of those venues compare to Lexington’s downtown arena. And certainly not to this particular home team. The Wildcats have had a couple of early stumbles but remain a polling fixture and will again contend for a NCAA top seeding come March. After an off-night at LSU last week, Kentucky made fast work at Alabama 77-61.
“They’re a great team, they’re playing well right now,” said Howland.
Kentucky certainly is shooting well, tied for first in the SEC at 47.3% overall. It’s an interesting offense though compared to recent Wildcat clubs. This is a backcourt-dominated team, clearly. “And their guard play is as good as anybody in the country,” Howland said.
Especially lead guard Tyler Ulis (13.7 ppg) who Mississippi State’s coach said arguably is the best at his position in the country. “He essentially never comes out, and he has a 4-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.” Of his 85 assists, more than a few were converted into baskets by guard Jamal Murray (17.3 ppg, 37 three-pointers).
The muscle comes from 6-9 forward Marcus Lee (8.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg), and Alex Poythress (10.1, 7.1). And elite freshman forward Skal Labissiere adds 8.1 points either starting or rotating. Between them Lee and Labissiere have 51 of the team’s 82 blocks.
Kentucky can be sloppy with the ball for their part, and as a team has just nine more assists than turnovers. But the Wildcats are adept at taking the ball away to offset their minor issues. “They create a lot off their defense and their pressure,” Howland said. “When you do get by the pressure they’ve got guys waiting for you. They block a lot of shots and it changes a lot of shots.”
For a few weeks shooting had been a Bulldog strong point, and they still are 4th-best in SEC accuracy. But a 24-of-64 afternoon at Arkansas went against the trend. Howland had gone into that road game worried about handling Razorback pressure, then his team had just 14 turnovers—not bad at all under circumstances—and usually got into half-court offense just fine.
Of course with Arkansas burning their own nets with sizzling three-point shooting it did not matter in the long run. Yet, “The most disappointing thing is we’re down three with six minutes left. And we just did not score enough possessions in a row, and they got open threes.” Which was how a tight game turned into a stat-sheet blowout.
Howland’s top takeaway from that trip was about offensive execution. He certainly had plenty time to analyze the loss; the Bulldogs were stuck in Fayetteville overnight with plane troubles fortunately on the ground. Yes, Howland said, taking 22 trey-tries in that matchup was a little more than he wanted and that holds for the season as a whole.
“But we’re missing some wide-open threes, too.” In two SEC tests the Dogs are 13-of-45. Which, by contrast, is where opponents have thrived. Texas A&M and Arkansas were a combined 25-of-51 at the arc against State.
That SEC teams are tossing up so many long shots is largely a result of the full-time zone defense Howland has decided on. It isn’t his favorite scheme but it is the best way to stave off foul troubles, especially in center Gavin Ware’s case. At the same time Mississippi State’s zone can crack and allow high-percentage inside shots. So, Howland said, it’s just a matter of the Bulldogs getting better on this end of the floor.
Besides, “To win on the road you have to play great defense. Defense is what travels best.” Howland does see some progress in areas like block-outs inside the zone. And, the way Arkansas ripped from long range isn’t going to happen often…hopefully.
What State would like to see happen more often are games of the sort guard Craig Sword gave at Fayetteville. The senior lit Arkansas up in the first half and finished with a season-best 21 points on 7-of-9 work with two treys. The latter is not his best skill of course, but if teams try to seal-off driving lanes Sword will try from the arc. He’d rather look for the assist, though.
“If the defense packs it in, I’m going to dribble around and get somebody else open,” Sword said. Fans noticed Saturday that the senior had ditched the tinted goggles worn in the A&M game, result of a scratched eye. “They kept fogging up,” said Sword.
Clearly Ware (17.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg) is the top Dog at each end. But after weeks of excellent shooting the senior center was 5-of-16 Saturday, and at times forced some attempts perhaps from frustrations. Howland wants Ware to get the ball more, shoot it more, and drive it more since he is a reliable free thrower on the SEC’s leading line-shooting squad.
That statistic actually shows the other offensive issue for State. The Bulldogs have taken the fewest free throws of any SEC squad by more than fifty. Howland sees a squad not making the extra pass, or two, and firing a jumper one sequence too soon.
“We’ve got to be more patient.”
Howland is 1-1 against Kentucky teams, beating the 2005-06 Wildcats in the Maui Invitational with UCLA en route to a Final Four appearance. His own only trip to Rupp was with Pitt, and that for a NCAA Regional game with the Wildcats not involved.