LEXINGTON — Kentucky is coming off a badly needed overtime win over Missouri, but UK¿coach John Calipari stressed Monday that his team now had to “keep on that path” in the weeks ahead.
“We’ve got four left and Mississippi State at home and got to go on the road to two teams (Arkansas and Georgia) that have played very well and have been well-coached and end up with Florida, one of the top two, three, four teams in the country to finish up the year,” said Calipari on the Southeastern Conference coaches’ teleconference. “So we got a tough road. What I’m trying to do with our team is stay in the moment and let’s see how we improve. I think we have gotten better and just try to keep on that path right now.”
Mississippi State doesn’t figure to be a big obstacle for the Cats. First-year coach Ricky Ray is down to six scholarship players and two walk-on players. His team has lost 12 straight games in league play and scored only 31 points in a 41-point loss at Vanderbilt Saturday. Now comes a revived Kentucky playing in Rupp Arena needing a third straight win to keep adding to its NCAA Tournament resume.
Ray said he had seen Kentucky play during the season, but had not focused on the Wildcats until this week. However, he knew plenty about the Wildcats.
“Things have changed for them obviously losing (Nerlens) Noel on the defensive end because he covered up a lot of mistakes and you could have some situations where you could pressure more and gamble more and he would erase those mistakes at the rim,” Ray said. “That’s obviously affected their team.
“But the things I’m really impressed with is how coach Calipari has set his guys up to be successful on the offensive end with some of the things they do. That diamond screening action that they’re doing for Julius Mays really does a good job of isolating him and getting him cutting and screening and having some opportunities to score the basketball, but it also isolates (Kyle) Wiltjer in the post.”
Wiltjer did not have a field goal against Missouri — he missed his only two shots — and is averaging only 10.6 points per game in conference play. However, he’s got Ray’s attention.
“I’m really concerned about him because he’s so patient when he gets the ball in the post. Most kids, when they get it in the post or off the post, they really rush everything, but he’s patient and can go over either shoulder, can dribble with either hand. Obviously (he) has a tremendous shooting touch,” the Mississippi State coach said.
“And then you’ve got (Archie) Goodwin, who is just a terror to stop him getting into the paint. And I think (Alex) Poythress is a big, strong, physical kid, and I’m really concerned he will overpower some of our guys in the driving area and in the post. I think coach Calipari has really done a good job of finding some ways to put his guys in position to be successful by scoring the basketball.”
Mississippi State is not scoring. The Bulldogs do not have a player averaging in double figures and have scored 70 or more points in only three SEC games — an 18-point loss to Mississippi, a 32-point loss to Alabama and an 11-point win over Georgia. The Bulldogs managed just 36 points against Missouri, 43 against Alabama and 47 against Florida. They got just 49 points in an overtime loss to Texas A&M. Against Vanderbilt on Saturday, they made just seven field goals — the fewest since State got eight field goals against Ole Miss in 1959.
“With the situation we’re in right now with the suspension, having six scholarship guys and now the two walk-ons, for those guys to go out and compete like they did against Alabama (in a 64-56 loss last week), I was really impressed with that factor. I was looking for some carryover from that Alabama game into the Vanderbilt game and obviously that did not happen,” Ray said. “I thought we came out and really played well the first four to six minutes defensively and then they started to started to set a high ball screen and we didn’t get that stopped at all, which led to them getting a lot of offensive rebounds.
“But the biggest thing is I thought we had some decent looks at the basket offensively the first four six to minutes of the ballgame that simply didn’t go down and our guys kind of lost their spirit because we wasn’t playing well offensively which led to us not playing well defensively.”
He says “there is nobody in the country that’s went through what we’ve went through” this season. .
“It’s been a trying season and, to our guys’ credit, they really hung in there and tried to be good citizens and do some of the things that we want them to do on the court and continue to try to compete. But when someone says, ‘I understand what you’re going through,’ no you don’t. You really don’t. But you can’t use it as an excuse. At the end of the day, you have to go out and try to compete and win ballgames because no one’s canceling the season,” Ray said.
Kentucky will present national championship rings to its 1996 during a halftime ceremony Wednesday and the first 10,000 fans to arrive at Rupp Arena will receive special posters commemorating the team. All members on the 1996 team participating will be available to sign the posters and other memorabilia at the Kentucky Proud Market in the Lexington Center before the game.
SEC honors Cauley-Stein
Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein’s week of career highs has earned the Wildcats’ center his second Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week selection.
The 7-foot Cauley-Stein blocked a career-high seven shots and tied a career best with 12 rebounds Saturday in a 90-83 overtime over Missouri.
In Kentucky’s 74-7 victory Wednesday against Vanderbilt, he had a career-high 20 points on 8 of 10 shooting, a team-high seven rebounds and three blocks, including two in the final minute.
His play helped the Wildcats (19-8, 10-4) stay in contention for at-large NCAA tournament bid.
Cauley-Stein averaged 13.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and five blocks for the week.