With Kentucky’s limited numbers and lack of post depth, Matthew Mitchell said before the season that UK would have to become an elite three-point shooting team.
“We’re working really hard right now on trying to be one of the best three-point makers in the Southeastern Conference and we need to get that done to make the offense dynamic,” the coach said in early October.
His Cats haven’t exactly rounded into that long-range team of his dreams quite yet, making just 30.7 percent this season, including 29.1 percent in Southeastern Conference play.
Those numbers will have to go up if Kentucky wants to continue to see the success that’s brought it four wins in a row in SEC play.
“It is a big part of us being able to maximize our potential,” Mitchell said as UK (14-6, 5-2) prepares to play host to Ole Miss on Thursday in Memorial Coliseum. “We have to shoot the ball better.”
Kentucky has done a good job of stressing foes defensively by getting the ball inside to Evelyn Akhator, who is averaging a double-double in league play, but the Cats need to knock down their open shots away from the basket, he said.
“They are creating some wide-open threes for us — or the (opponent) is choosing not to guard us from three — and we are a good three-point shooting team,” he said of UK, which made 35.6 percent last season. “So, we continue to work and see if we can really get that clicking.”
The guards have been doing their part, freshman Jaida Roper said.
“We’re always in the gym after practice putting up extra three-pointers,” she said, noting that the goal is to make 10 shots from seven different spots each day after practice.
Getting those percentages up might be a test against the Rebels, who are the conference’s fourth-best team at defending the three, holding foes to just 27 percent.
But those numbers have taken a turn in SEC play, with Ole Miss permitting 38.1 percent three-point shooting from long range, worst in the league. After allowing just 36 three-pointers in non-conference play, the Rebels have given up 37 in the last seven games.
Tourney talk in January?
This week, Kentucky was announced as one of the top 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament by the women’s selection committee, which puts out up-to-date rankings several times before the tournament.
It’s a benefit to be one of the top four seeds because they can play host to the first two rounds, as UK has in the past.
Even though UK has lost six games this season, the Cats came in at No. 15 overall.A strong strength of schedule (third nationally) and high ratings percentage index (No. 14) might be the reason.
While it’s good to know where it stands, Mitchell said the team hasn’t been discussing its March plans in January.
“We were 15 out of 16,” he said of the seeding. “We’ve got a much easier chance to slide out than we do to work our way up. Again if you’ve got your mind on that, in my estimation, you’re in the wrong spot.”
On the mend
Reserve guard Jessica Hardin, who has missed seven straight games while working through the concussion protocol, is unlikely to play Thursday night, but she has been cleared to return to practice for non-contact drills which is “huge,” Mitchell said.
“For a while, she was not even attending practice because the movement bothered her,” he said. “She looked really good yesterday, fresh. You know, she had good explosive quickness. So now, just continue to go through the non-contact piece.”
Mitchell did not rule out Hardin returning for the Missouri game Monday.
Memorial Coliseum return
A familiar face will return to Memorial Coliseum on Thursday night in Ole Miss Coach Matt Insell, who was an assistant at UK for six seasons under Matthew Mitchell.
Ole Miss (13-7, 2-5) also was the landing spot for guard Chrishae Rowe, who was dismissed from Kentucky’s team before the start of last season, but the junior isn’t making the trip to Lexington, a team spokesman confirmed.
“She’s dealing with an ongoing medical condition and is unavailable at this time,” Ole Miss’s Jessica Poole said in an email. “There is no timetable for her return.”
Rowe has missed the last four games. Before that, the guard was averaging 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds in six games played.
News and notes
Kentucky has touched on some familiar themes in practice this week, including taking care of the ball.
For the third game in a row, Kentucky will face one of the league’s top three teams in steals. Kentucky has already conquered LSU and Auburn on the road. Now comes Ole Miss, which averages 10.8 steals.
The two previous opponents were more zone heavy, Mitchell said. Ole Miss is “a lot more unpredictable.
“It looks to me like there’s more quickness and speed than the other two,” said Mitchell, whose team is turning the ball over an SEC-low 12.5 times a game.
“Not taking anything away from the other two teams, but this is a very, very quick backcourt. Deep backcourt,” the coach said. “We have to take care of the ball. We have to be patient and poised on offense. We’ve gotta rebound the ball.”
▪ Ole Miss hasn’t won a true road game this season and brings a 12-game SEC road losing streak to Memorial Coliseum. The Rebels, who have lost three straight games, haven’t won at Kentucky since 2007. However, they have won the last two meetings with the Cats, and Insell is 2-2 against his former employer.
Ole Miss at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Ole Miss 13-7 (2-5 SEC), Kentucky 14-6 (5-2)
Series: Ole Miss leads 22-16
Last meeting: Ole Miss won 73-65 on Jan. 21, 2016, at Oxford, Miss.