*Kentucky is ranked #3 in both of this week's national polls. The Bulldogs are unranked, having been in the polls a dozen weeks—reaching a high ranking of #11 (Associated Press) in the January 10 listing.
About the Wildcats
Until last week it looked like Kentucky was putting together another wire-to-wire SEC run that would take them to another league championship. Then came an ugly win over Georgia and the most unexpected upset at South Carolina, suddenly making it seem the Wildcats were vulnerable. Well, maybe. More likely it was a case of a relatively still-new ball club just needing to catch a collective breath after a pretty darn impressive three months. Whatever happens the rest of this month, come March this team will still be regarded as the SEC's best national bet. Even by Big Blue standards Tubby Smith has done an excellent if often under-appreciated job of putting pieces together. The scoring stats are well-balanced, particularly around a versatile frontcourt that can both muscle and run. Swingman Kelenna Azubuike is enjoying a strong junior season and scoring both in the paint and at the arc, and he is an ideal complement to bruising forward Chuck Hayes. The team's only senior regular, Hayes' impact goes beyond mere statistics because he can shoot, score, defend, and really rebound. The loss of three '04 starters opened doors for a couple of freshmen to earn jobs, and G Rajon Rondo and C Randolph Morris certainly seized opportunities. The real ‘newcomer' of this team's year though is junior transfer Patrick Sparks. He stepped right into a vacant job at point and has taken charge of this squad immediately…and his winning free throws against Louisville are the big play of UK's season to-date. The best way to grade this team is by SEC-game stats, where the Wildcats are second in scoring, second in defense, tops in shooting, and near the top in most other categories. Except, oddly for UK, three-point shooting. But they defend the trey even better, and rank at the top in steals. Kentucky also does a better job distributing the ball than any SEC club, without turnovers. Simply, this is a solid all-around squad that does everything well and nothing poorly. If there is a question by now it would be whether Kentucky has the crunch-time firepower to beat a really hot foe. Or put another way, with two of the last three games at Alabama and Florida, can the Kats close strong and end the regular season as SEC champs? If so, they will have earned the crown and can still receive a regional top-seeding despite non-league losses at North Carolina and to Kansas.
Probable Starting Lineups
Kentucky: G Patrick Sparks 6-0 JR, 11.1ppg, 4.2apg, 47 3ptrs; G Rajon Rondo, 6-1 FR, 8.5ppg, 3.1rpg, 3.0apg; C Randolph Morris, 6-10 FR, 8.4ppg, 3.9rpg; G/F Kelenna Azubuike, 6-5 JR, 14.2ppg, 4.7rpg, 32 3ptrs; F Chuck Hayes, 6-6 SR, 10.6 ppg, 8.7rpg.
Wildcat Alternates: G Ramel Bradley, 6-1 FR, 4.7ppg, 14 3ptrs; F Bobby Perry, 6-6 SO, 3.6ppg, 2.3rpg; C Shagari Alleyne, 7-3 SO, 3.8ppg, 2.5rpg; G Ravi Moss, 6-2 JR, 3.4ppg.
Mississippi State: G Gary Ervin, 5-11 SO, 8.2ppg, 5.1apg; G Shane Power, 6-5 SR, 11.1ppg, 4.0rpg, 47 3pts; C Marcus Campbell, 7-0 SR, 7.1ppg, 5.8rpg; F Lawrence Roberts, 6-9 SR, 17.8ppg, 11.3rpg; F Ontario Harper, 6-5 SR, 7.8ppg, 5.0rpg, OR G Winsome Frazier, 6-4 SR, 13.1ppg, 3.4rpg, 38 3ptrs.
Bulldog Backups: G Jamall Edmondson, 5-9 JR, 4.5ppg, 23 3ptrs; G Dietric Slater, 6-3 SO, 3.4ppg, 2.0rpg; F/C Walter Sharpe, 6-9 FR, 2.6ppg, 1.9rpg.
Scoring: MSU 73.3, UK 73.9
Scoring Defense: MSU 64.8, UK 59.6
Rebounding: MSU 41.1, UK 36.7
Rebounding Margin: MSU +9.0, UK +3.9
Shooting: MSU 45.2%, UK 45.7%
Shooting Defense: MSU 40.6%, 40.1%
Three-Point Shooting: MSU 33.3% (143/429), UK 32.7% (137/419)
Three-Point Defense: MSU 30.9% (167/541), UK 30.6% (133/435)
Kentucky owns a 81-17 lead in a series that pre-dates the Southeastern Conference, starting in 1921. The Wildcats have scored long winning streaks at Mississippi State's expense, such as 17-game runs from both 1929-1956 and again from 1967-1975. Only once has MSU even won consecutive meetings, at the peak of Babe McCarthy's prowess in 1962 and '63. Kentucky has won the last three games, including a 2003 brawl in the finals of the SEC Tournament in New Orleans. State's last win came in 2002 as the Bulldogs ralled from 21-2 down for a 74-69 overtime upset. Rick Stansbury is 1-6 against Kentucky, while Tubby Smith is 7-1 against MSU as UK coach. State has won just four of 45 games played in Lexington.
Did You Know?
*Mississippi State has only won once against Kentucky in Rupp Arena, in 1995 when then-senior and current Bulldog assistant coach Marcus Grant led a 76-71 victory for Coach Richard Williams' club.
*The MSU-UK contest caps what the Southeastern Conference has titled the "East-West Challenge" day. For the first time since the league expanded in 1992 and split into matching Divisions, all six SEC games played will be inter-Division matchups. State's game is the last of the day. The Bulldogs are 3-1 against East teams so far, though all three wins have come at home. Kentucky is 3-0 against West teams.
*Kentucky media relations director Scott Stricklin is a MSU alumnus and former P.R. assistant with the Bulldogs. He is also married to Anne Howell, daughter of State great Bailey Howell.
Bulldog Game Notes
*Mississippi State is looking for the first SEC road win since a January 8 victory at Mississippi. That is the lone league road success so far, with defeats at Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, and Auburn. This contrasts to the perfect 8-0 SEC away-game record for last year's ‘Road Warriors.'
*With Wednesday night's loss to LSU, once again State has failed to score a perfect home-record season in Humphrey Coliseum since the facility opened in 1975-76.
*In his six seasons running State's program, there are only two SEC arenas Rick Stansbury has been unable to score a victory. Rupp Arena is one, and Georgia's Stegeman Coliseum is the other. These are State's next two opponents, and locales.
*The lost the game to LSU, but the Bulldogs did manage to eke out a ‘win' in total rebounding for the 21st time in 25 games this year. State continues to top the SEC in total rebound average at 41.1 boards, three ahead of Alabama. MSU teams have won the last four league rebounding ‘titles' and are going for an unprecedented fifth this year.
*With 14 more rebounds against LSU, senior forward Lawrence Roberts increased his SEC-leading average to 11.3 boards per game. His nearest competitor is Kentucky's Chuck Hayes at 8.7. Roberts did lose some ground to Florida's Anthony Roberson in the SEC scoring championship, as his average is down to 17.8 points. Roberts is attempting to average a ‘double-double' for a second-straight year after notching 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds as a junior. He has tallied a double-dip in 52 of his career games, which leads all active NCAA players.
*Senior forward Shane Power has stepped to the offensive-fore the last four games, scoring 18, 18, 16, and 20 points. In the process he has raised his season average to 11.1 points, but his SEC-game average now stands at 12.1.
*Power is the current SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year, and this week was presented on the watch list for the Collegiate Basketball Award of Excellence presented by Creamland Dairies. This third-year award recognizes college seniors for athletic and academic achievements on the campus and in their community. Power and Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes are the only SEC players on the 25-man list. Lady Bulldog guard Tan White is up for the women's version of the award.
*Senior guard Winsome Frazier, who missed eight complete games after a January 8 broken foot, returned to score 11 points in 24 minutes off the bench against LSU. It was his 13th game scoring double-figures out of 17 played this season. Despite his absence Frazier still ranks second in made-treys on the MSU team.
*Mississippi State has not lost consecutive games of any sort since March, 2003, when the Bulldogs fell in the finals of the SEC Tournament and the first round of the NCAA tourney. State hasn't lost back-to-back SEC games since March 1/5 of that year, though those setbacks were both on the road.
Mississippi State heads to Athens for a Wednesday contest with Georgia, while Kentucky hosts Auburn.