John Clay: Bulldogs mere tuneup for tough work ahead

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 27, 2013 

  • Next game

    Kentucky at Arkansas

    When: Saturday, 4 p.m. (CBS-27)

You know when someone is going on a trip abroad and friends and family throw a going-away party?

That's what it felt like at Rupp Arena on Wednesday night.

On Friday, Kentucky packs its basketball bags to head to Arkansas for a Saturday game, then travels to Georgia next Thursday for the final two road games of the season, very important games as far as the conference season and a possible NCAA Tournament berth is concerned.

First, however, it had to dispense of poor, undermanned, hapless Mississippi State, which it did in expected fashion, battering the Bulldogs 85-55.

In fact, here near the end of the season, the game had a start of the season feel, like it was one of those exhibition games against a grossly inferior foe, just a tuneup for the real stuff that lies ahead.

And there were plenty of sideshows to keep things interesting.

We would say that the No. 1 recruit in all the land, one Andrew Wiggins, was in the stands, but under NCAA guidelines we media types are not supposed to publicize such visits — so we won't.

We will say that 10 of the 15 members of the 1996 national championship team were on hand — Nazr Muhammed, Allen Edwards, Mark Pope, Cameron Mills and Ron Mercer were the no-shows — to receive special commemorative rings.

When it was his time to walk across the floor and receive his ring, former point guard Anthony Epps leaned down and kissed the inter-locking "UK" logo.

"I'm a Kentuckian," Epps explained afterward.

Before that, in a special video segment, Pope, now an assistant coach at BYU, talked about how much he missed not being at Rupp, then tore off his clothes to reveal his old UK uniform underneath.

Pope then immediately broke into a "C-A-T-S, Cats! Cats! Cats!" cheer.

There was plenty of cheering for the play on the floor, as well. UK led by 23 at the half. It won by 30.

Give Mississippi State credit. For a team that has just six scholarship players and has now lost 13 games in a row, first-year coach Rick Ray's team competes as hard as it possibly can.

"I'm too old to go through that," admitted UK Coach John Calipari of MSU's struggles.

(Fashion update: Calipari wore a blue shirt with a white collar and no tie — again. And have you noticed others are following Cal's lead? Tubby Smith went tieless in Minnesota's win over No. 1 IU on Tuesday.)

In his eyes, Calipari has been through enough already. Losing six players to the pros after the national title last season. Having Ryan Harrow leave for four games early in this season. Missing Willie Cauley-Stein for four games after a knee procedure. Then — boom — losing Nerlens Noel for the year with an ACL.

"Tell me another team that has been through that," said Calipari, whose team did just lose by 30 points at Tennessee. "Ten days ago, everyone was throwing dirt on us."

After UK's Saturday win over Missouri, they were throwing roses. And the Cats kept the momentum moving forward against MSU.

"I don't see a lot of problems," said Ray.

Harrow scored 19 points, grabbed seven rebounds — that is not a misprint — and made four assists, all without a turnover. Alex Poythress had 16 points and eight rebounds.

"Should have been 25 and 12," said Calipari.

Twany Beckham, the senior who is technically out for the year after back surgery, even checked into the game for a brief on-court appearance so he could bask in a hand from the crowd.

There were a mere two disappointments, one being walk-on Brian Long not scoring despite repeated efforts to get him into the scoring column.

And Julius Mays requiring four stitches from a laceration over his eye after taking an inadvertent elbow from Poythress.

"He's fine," said Calipari of Mays.

After those post-Tennessee dirt days, the Cats do seem f-i-n-e fine.

And ready to take a trip.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226 Email: jclay@herald-leader.com Twitter: @johnclayiv Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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