Thursday, February 28, 2013

Kentucky 85 - 55 Mississippi St. (No. 2,110)

I'm very happy that Rick Stansbury wasn't able to bring his version of the Mississippi State Bulldogs to Rupp Arena last night.  Stansbury, who coached at MSU from 1999 to 2012, was a throwback to a more eccentric era in SEC basketball.  Stansbury was always putting together these teams full of amazing athletes who didn't always seem to care what happened on the court.  Every year, MSU would have a lot of talent, but would throw away games against schools like Auburn or South Carolina, until they almost always ended up on the NCAA Bubble.  Then the Bulldogs would rally together in a desperate effort to beat UK and/or win the SEC Tournament.  For UK, at least, these were extremely intense games.  Who could forget John Wall's team beating MSU in overtime -- both at Starkville and in the final of the SEC Tournament?  Or the 2011 game at Rupp, where UK fell way behind in the first half before pulling out an 85-79 victory?  Or last year's game at Starkville, in which MSU led 41-28 (!) at the half, and 60-53 with only 6 1/2 minutes left (!!) -- only to fall apart down the stretch?  Now those were some games.  If Stansbury had shown up with his usual squad, he would have given the Cats fits last night.

But evidently the eccentric Mr. Stansbury was a little too eccentric even for the cowbell-ringers in Starkville, and he was let go after the 2012 season.  In 14 seasons, he won 54.5 percent of his SEC games and made the NCAA's on six different occasions.  It will be interesting to see if MSU can match that performance over the next 14 years.

Certainly they have not done so this year.  Coach Rick Ray has had all sorts of bad luck, including losing two players to ACL injuries.  And he does not seem to have the sort of D-League quality talent that always made Stansbury's teams so dangerous.  The results have been terrible for MSU -- they have now lost 13 SEC games in a row, and Ken Pomeroy says that they are the 276th-best team in the country.  They may be the worst SEC team I've ever seen.

As a result, they were not likely to give the Cats too much trouble, and in fact they did not.  Kyle Wiltjer, who has been in a slump lately, went 1-7 from the field (including 0-3 from behind the arc) and finished with only 2 points and 3 rebounds.  But that was pretty much the only good news for MSU, as the rest of the Cats torched them.  In fact, UK's players (other than Wiltjer) went 24-36 (66.7 %) from 2-point range, 9-19 (47.4 percent) from 3-point range, and 8-11 (72.7 percent) from the line.

Naturally, UK's intensity faded somewhat down the stretch -- the Cats were up 67-37 with 10 minutes to go, and then played even with MSU the rest of the way.  But after so many close games, it was nice to see them have an easy time for once.

Unfortunately, as I pointed out to Number3Son, this will probably be the last time all season that UK enjoys such a big lead.  They have three very difficult games to finish out the schedule:

1.  On 3/2, UK goes to Arkansas.  The Hogs haven't lost to an SEC opponent at home all year, and they will be PUMPED as usual to play the Cats.  K-Pom gives UK a 56 percent chance of winning, with a projected score of 76-74.

2.  On 3/7, UK goes to Georgia, which always plays us tough.  K-Pom gives UK a 68 percent chance of winning, with a projected score of 66-61.

3.  On 3/9, UK ends the regular season at home against Florida.  We already know how tough they are.  K-Pom gives UK only a 22 percent chance of victory, and he thinks UF will prevail 70-62.

Amazingly, if UK could run the table, the Cats would be either the champion or the co-champion of the SEC.  Given all that's happened to Kentucky this year, that would be an incredible accomplishment.  But believe me, winning any of these three games will be difficult.  As Eric says, we'll just have to take it one game at a time.

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