Suffice to say, Thursday night was not the start to SEC play — or NCAA Tournament contention — Ole Miss was looking for.
Make no mistake, Kentucky is one of the best teams in the country. The Wildcats entered play ranked No. 8 by the Associated Press and, perhaps more importantly, No. 6 in the RPI. Ole Miss held an RPI rank of 35. A league loss on the road would have meant little or nothing for Kentucky. But a 23-point loss by the host team, which was, in the end, the result? Not good. Not when the Rebels have no signature wins on their postseason resume.
Granted, they had no disaster losses either. Of their three losses, two came against Top 30 RPI teams, while the other, Virginia Tech, is 52. Kentucky was a disaster loss. But there are opportunities aplenty in the weeks and months ahead. Eleven of the 14 SEC teams are currently ranked in the Top 83 of the RPI. Alabama isn’t terribly far off at 107. Outside of Mississippi State (185) and Missouri (219), the SEC, arguably, holds its strongest position in some time for multiple NCAA Tournament bids — at least, this close to the New Year.
So, a loss to Kentucky isn’t crippling by any means, but losing in downright ugly fashion in front of a near-capacity Pavilion crowd isn’t a good look at all, and will only look worse with age once the selection committee starts to dive in-depth into resumes. You are what your numbers say you are, and Ole Miss already has a 15-point loss to NCAA Tournament contender MTSU on its ledger, and now an almost 30-point loss to Kentucky. Dynamic Kentucky leading man Malik Monk scored 34 on 11 of 16 from the field. Isaiah Briscoe notched a triple-double, the third in school history. The Rebels were 11-point underdogs to Kentucky, meaning a loss, if we’re being candid here, was the expected outcome. It’s OK to admit the Wildcats were superior. But the separation of these teams was, honestly, surprising to me. The game was all but over with some nine minutes left in the first half and the Rebels down 21-7. Ole Miss trailed by 21 at halftime. Kentucky was, put simply, head-and-shoulders better and bullied the Rebels, as the Wildcats tend to do to most of their opponents. They scored 60 points in the first half, the most ever by UK in a first half under head coach John Calipari. Their depth and overall roster strength was a sight to see, with Calipari afforded the luxury of a second unit that would be the starting group for most every other team. Still, I thought Ole Miss, to this point, was closer to the cream of the crop in the SEC than maybe they are. I believed Andy Kennedy had his most-complete team since Chris Warren and Terrico White shared a back court — save for the true point guard the roster sorely lacks. Breein Tyree would classify as one, but he’s not yet 100 percent, to the untrained eye, in his return from a knee injury.
Or maybe Thursday’s loss will prove to be nothing more than an outlier. Maybe it’s Kentucky and everybody else, as it’s been for the last few years, and the remaining SEC teams will beat each other up in the race for Nos. 2, 3 and 4. That’s OK, too, and I tend to believe that will be the case. Next is a road trip to Florida Jan. 3. The Gators have the third-best RPI ranking in college basketball. Then comes Auburn (45), Georgia (38) and South Carolina (29). I'd say Ole Miss is comparable to those teams, and rattling off three or four wins would put Kentucky squarely in the rearview mirror. Ole Miss would be firmly in the conversation for the Big Dance, too, if not ahead of the curve. The Rebels likely need 11 or 12 conference wins to make it in. Kentucky would have been an awfully nice start. But it’s not the end of the world either. Not by a long shot.
(Kentucky head coach John Calipari)
On the Pavilion (Cal’s first trip to Ole Miss since his ‘squirrel’ comment regarding the Tad Pad): “The one thing you know about Ole Miss is when they do something, they’re going to do it right. But they won’t do it. When you go around this campus and see you see a theater or museum, classrooms, they built a hotel that they use for football games, I think. This building looks like it seats 16,000. Took care of the students; let them be on the bottom. Took care of all their fans by having dugouts or bunks behind there. I went through the building and I was like, ‘Holy cow.’ I told (Kentucky’s media relations director), ‘You’ve got to see this because we’ve got to get some ideas for our building and do a better job of taking care of our people.’ And then the one thing that really got me is Andy got a parking space. I don’t have a parking space. I went to (Kentucky’s media relations director) and said, ‘How the heck does he have a parking space and I don’t have a parking space? That’s crazy.’ But anyway, I saw (Ole Miss women’s basketball coach) Matt Insell yesterday. He was with us at Kentucky for a while. We played really well today, guys. The first half, that’s as good as we’ve played in a long while. Then they came back at us in the second half. We got sloppy. What I’m trying to do with my team is discipline. We have to have discipline. You saw in the second half when we didn’t, and I went crazy. But it was a good road win.” On Ole Miss: “They’re arguably the best free throw shooting team in the country. So if you’re fouling, you’re losing. It gives them a chance to stop the game, get in their 1-3-1 and get in their stretch defense. We like a team to spread out the court on us, because it opens up lanes for us to drive and do stuff. When a team does that, these guys are pretty trained to attack.” On the stuffed squirrel and note he was given by Ole Miss pregame: “I’m taking the squirrel with me, by the way. This one was a dead squirrel. The other one (at the Tad Pad) was a live, and he peed on my shoes before I left in that Tad whatever that thing was called over there. You’ve got to give it to Ole Miss. I don’t care if it’s with football, academics, if they do something, it’s going to be done right or they won’t do it. This building right here? It’s already helped in recruiting. They got a kid from Oak Hill (Devontae Shuler) that we would have taken. Kid is really good. It’s going to help him in recruiting. That was a great environment for the fans, they got the band going, you’ve got the food court. For Andy to go do what he’s trying to do, you have to have this. He’s the veteran SEC coach in basketball and football. How about that? He’s it. He’s the senior coach.”
OXFORD – (AP) Malik Monk scored 34 points as Kentucky bounced back impressively from a road loss at Louisville with a 99-76 win over Mississippi Thursday night in the SEC opener for both teams.
Isaiah Briscoe added a triple-triple, 19 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats (11-2, 1-0), who led 60-41 at halftime and were never seriously threatened. Edrice Adebayo added 25 points, primarily on the strength of seven dunks.
Monk finished 11 of 16 from the field, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range and added six rebounds and three steals. Adebayo was 12 of 19 from the field and blocked three shots.
Sebastian Saiz led the Rebels (9-4, 0-1) with 23 points and 13 rebounds. DeAndre Burnett and Rasheed Brooks added 19 and 15 points, respectively.
Kentucky finished 37 of 74, 50 percent, from the field and 8 of 18, 44 percent, from 3-point range. Ole Miss shot 27 of 72, 37 percent, from the field, including 6 of 22, 27 percent, from the 3-point line.
Kentucky: The Wildcats started 9 of 11 from the field, including three acrobatic dunks by Adebayo, to build an insurmountable 21-7 lead in the opening five minutes. Kentucky was 24 of 39 from the field, 62 percent, in the first half. The Wildcats forced 15 turnovers and finished with nine steals; three apiece from De'Aaron Fox and Monk.
Ole Miss: The Rebels got strong performances from Saiz and Burnett and little else. Ole Miss struggled with the on-ball perimeter pressure from Kentucky's defense, as point guard Cullen Neal had four turnovers and three fouls in the opening nine minutes. The schedule does not get easier, with three of the next four games on the road.
Kentucky hosts Texas A&M Tuesday as the Wildcats play three of the next four games at home.
Ole Miss visits No. 25 Florida on Tuesday.