LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky has been able overcome inconsistent play on defense and from centers to stay within striking distance of first-place Florida heading into the second half of Southeastern Conference play.
The 18th-ranked Wildcats (17-5, 7-2) have shown improvement in both areas and feel good about where they are in the standings.
Kentucky begins a two-game road swing Saturday at Mississippi State, which it beat 85-63 a month ago. Wildcats coach John Calipari said Friday he expects a tougher rematch in Starkville, followed by another challenge Wednesday at Auburn.
Kentucky carries a two-game winning streak into its meeting against the Bulldogs (13-9, 3-6), including Tuesday night’s 80-64 win over Mississippi.
“It will be a hard game for us,” Calipari said of the game at Mississippi State. “They’re not going to walk away from us. This is a great challenge and they left our game saying, ‘we can beat these guys.’”
Against Ole Miss, the Wildcats showed how good they can be— when they’re focused.
Rejuvenated center Willie Cauley-Stein had 18 points and 11 rebounds to lead five Wildcats in double figures and break the game open after leading 35-34 at halftime. Kentucky shot 63 percent in the second half and 51 percent overall while holding the Rebels to 39 percent from the floor and dominating nearly every statistical category.
The victory followed last weekend’s win at Missouri, a much-needed road win.
Senior guard Jarrod Polson believes Kentucky is more prepared for this next road swing that could determine if the Wildcats gain or lose ground in their efforts to catch Florida.
“I think they’ve already learned that any road game in the SEC is tough,” Polson said. “It doesn’t matter what team you’re playing on the road in the SEC, it’s going to be a dogfight. We know that and we’re going to be ready for the challenge.”
Kentucky will certainly face its share of gut checks in its final nine SEC games, including five on the road.
Following these next two road games, the Wildcats will face Florida twice along with home rematches against Arkansas and LSU, which handed Kentucky its only league losses last month. They also travel to Oxford for a road against Mississippi and guard Marshall Henderson, who figures to be eager for another shot at Kentucky after being held to 6 of 18 shooting on Tuesday at Rupp.
There’s also a road game at South Carolina and a home contest against Alabama before Kentucky closes the regular season at Florida.
Calipari said the Gators are “head and shoulders above everyone else right now.”
But the coach doesn’t want his squad getting ahead of itself. Kentucky must deal with a Mississippi State team trying to end a four-game losing streak.
The Bulldogs were tied with Texas A&M at halftime before going scoreless for more than 10 minutes in the second half and losing 72-52 Wednesday night. The Aggies shot 69 percent in the second half and put the game away with a 20-2 run.
Kentucky meanwhile has shot better than 50 percent in its past two games and aims to continue its success at Mississippi State. While it’s tempting to think ahead toward the Gators, Polson insisted that the team is focused on this game as it tries building a steady performance necessary to beat the unbeaten Gators.
Said Polson, “We’re just worried about ourselves.”