No. 1 Challenge
An obvious statement, maybe, considering he’s in his ninth season leading Ole Miss basketball. But even when he has some down time, when he isn’t game-planning for an opponent or running his team through practice, he’s glued to his television.
He can’t get enough.
So it should come as no surprise Kennedy shares similar thoughts, and a question, to almost everyone else in college basketball regarding No. 1 Kentucky.
“Can this team go through the regular season undefeated?,” he asked Monday.
Very possible. Still, the Wildcats will have to go through Ole Miss (9-4) first.
The Rebels travels to face Kentucky tonight at 6 p.m. in Rupp Arena. Through the 13-game non-conference slate, no team has been better, with the Wildcats a perfect 13-0 and the unanimous No. 1 team in the nation in both the Associated Press and coaches’ poll.
In the history of college basketball, all of seven teams have finished a season undefeated. The last team to do it? Bob Knight-led Indiana in 1976. A few teams have flirted with history, the latest being Wichita State. The Shockers suffered their only loss in 36 games in 2014 to (guess who?) Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats’ hopes of becoming No. 8 rest with the two-platoon approach of head coach John Calipari, who is afforded the luxury of nine – yes, N-I-N-E – former McDonald’s All-Americans on his roster. His second team is better talent-wise than most, if not all, of the rest of the SEC.
“It'll be a monumental challenge, obviously,” Kennedy said.
The Wildcats have just two players averaging in double figures in scoring – Andrew Harrison (10.3 points per game) and 7-foot junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein (10.1 ppg), who Kennedy said would get his too-early vote for SEC Player of the Year. Cauley-Stein is also averaging 6.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
“I think he's been the X-factor among many X-factors for Kentucky because of his ability to be so versatile,” Kennedy said. “His motor has gone to another level. He's playing like a junior, an upperclassman (that) you would expect. He's playing with a real sense of urgency, and I think that has been contagious on their team.”
“His growth from last year to this year is amazing,” Calipari said. “He now has become a player, not only defensively but offensively, who can do some things. I've been really pleased and proud of him, the way he's grown on the court and the way he's grown off the court.”
Ole Miss, opening SEC play on the road for the 13th time in the last 17 seasons, couldn’t have asked for a tougher draw. The Rebels are 0-15 all-time against the nation’s top-ranked team, and Kentucky holds a 102-13 lead in the all-time series and a 48-2 mark against Ole Miss in Lexington.
Even so, the Rebels are nothing if not happy to put a frustrating non-conference schedule in the rearview mirror.
They’ve won three of their last four games, and they’re No. 83 in the RPI, according to RealTimeRPI.com, with three top-100 wins over Cincinnati, Creighton and Oregon. But they’ve got a handful of ugly losses mixed in, too, including three at home and two to teams outside of the top-100. Ole Miss opened the year with a 66-65 loss to Charleston Southern.
“There've been a lot of things in the non-conference that I was not expecting,” Kennedy said. “Some of the inconsistencies. It may have been a false impression on myself initially. I thought the continuity would be a little better because we had more experience. The reality is we're still integrating new guys into the way we do things. It took us a while to figure out who is best with whom.”
Ole Miss added five players to its roster in the off-season, led by junior guard Stefan Moody. Moody was one of four players who scored double-digit points in the Rebels’ most-recent action, a 92-63 throttling of Austin Peay. He had 14 points for his team-leading 10th game in double figures this season.
If Ole Miss is to pull the upset, though, Moody will need help from backcourt mate Jarvis Summers, a preseason SEC Player of the Year candidate and the league’s active leader in points, assists, minutes and wins.
Summers has struggled with consistency so far in his senior year. But he was his old self against Austin Peay, scoring 18 points.
“We've still got a lot of work to do,” Summers said. “This is a big game. It's SEC, and we've got to be prepared for it. We want them now. We want the No. 1 team in the country. Why not?”
Another reasonable question. I mean, Ole Miss was going to have to face Kentucky at some point.
“I'm really pleased with this group,” Calipari said. “I say it all the time: they've got a genius. Their genius is their basketball ability, their athleticism, their length and all those things that are just not normal.”
Ole Miss hopes they’re a little more normal Tuesday.
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