OXFORD, Miss. — Time will tell if Kentucky turned a metaphorical corner at Ole Miss on Tuesday night. It's possible that the victory, which came three nights after a disappointing loss to Florida, merely reflected a wide variance in opposition.
Florida looked clearly the better team in outplaying Kentucky in Rupp Arena. The same could be said of UK at Ole Miss, leading to the logical conclusion that Kentucky on Tuesday night was about the same as Kentucky on Saturday night: a freshman-dependent team making "strides," as Coach John Calipari said, but still susceptible to the ups and downs that typify inexperienced teams.
The difference from Saturday to Tuesday: Florida's steely consistency and Ole Miss's inept inferiority.
After his team's 84-70 loss, Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy conceded the physical and competitive advantage to Kentucky.
"Obviously, they're very big and very long," he said of the Cats. "We're not very big. We're not very long. We're not very athletic."
Ole Miss intended to compensate by sagging its defense into the lane and taking the chance that Kentucky would make three-pointers at its normal rate (No. 283 nationally with an average of 5.1 three-pointers per game).
"My goal was if Kentucky beat us, let's make them make 20 three-pointers," Kennedy said. "Everybody stay in the lane."
Much as in the Tennessee game, Kentucky shot extraordinarily well. The Cats made seven three-pointers (in only four games had they made more) and 27 of 30 free throws. "Human nature," as Kennedy called it, led the Rebels to stray from the lane to try to contain UK's suddenly hot shooters from the perimeter.
That opened up the lane.
"The demoralizing thing (was) when we did get first-shot stops, they just got every rebound," Kennedy said.
The Ole Miss coach said he'd have to check the tape to see if UK's 39-23 rebound dominance reflected "mano-a-mano superiority" or his team's lack of effort.
"My guys just aren't tough enough physically to get our nose in there and battle," he said. "As a coach, when you're saying that at the end of February, it's pretty sobering (and) pretty disappointing. My fault."
Kennedy acknowledged that Ole Miss lacked the manpower to compete with Kentucky around the basket. In two meetings, UK outrebounded the Rebels by a combined 31 rebounds. The Rebels' rebound margin in Southeastern Conference games of minus 4.2 led panicky fans to suggest block-out drills.
"I've coached a few hundred games," Kennedy said in a good-natured tone. "I realize what the problem is. My problem is I can't do much about it right now. I'm going to work on that."
The same could be said of Ole Miss on the offensive end. Repeatedly, the Rebels missed point-blank layups or got the angle on a defender only to dribble off a foot and somehow lose control of the ball.
"Sometimes it's even a victory to get a shot," Kennedy said. "... Twenty-six games into this, and it's not changed."
When asked if he needed to recruit better players, Kennedy said, "Thank you. You said it."
Kentucky, which on Monday touted the lessons learned in Saturday's loss to Florida, also had familiar issues resurface.
Two rapid-fire no-nos come immediately to mind.
The Cats left Anthony Perez open in the corner for a three-pointer that reduced the one-time 22-point UK lead to 64-50. Calipari called time. The UK coach walked several feet onto the court, waved his arms to get Andrew Harrison's attention and put his chin on his chest in an exaggerated gesture. Harrison walked past Calipari.
"That's what a 17- (and) 18-year-old kid does," Calipari said of the head-hanging in general, not necessarily the teaching moment.
Overall, Calipari expressed satisfaction that Kentucky did not let the loss to Florida adversely affect its play at Ole Miss. About the same, or marginally better play was more than enough to subdue the Rebels.
Julius Randle, who scored 25 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, gracefully sidestepped an invitation to join Kennedy in denigrating the Rebels' competitiveness.
"I can't talk about anybody else's performance," he said. "All I know on the court, I can control what I do, and our team can control what we do.
"Playing hard should never be an issue for us."