The circumstances at Auburn on Saturday could hardly have been more challenging for Kentucky. This season’s collection of Kiddie Cats faced:
A ranked opponent.
An enthused crowd filling Auburn Arena and thirsting for a victory.
An experienced team.
A second-half rally filled with the psychological blow that comes with a three-point basket. Then another. Then another.
Assistant coach Tony Barbee, who substituted for John Calipari at Monday’s media availability, saw long-term significance in Kentucky’s 82-80 victory.
“I think we showed our resolve and our toughness,” he said. “That’s a trait of a championship team when you can do that.”
Of course, championships are how Kentucky teams are measured. That hasn’t changed even if the method to get there has. Dependence on one-and-done freshmen is the foundation of UK’s teams in the Calipari era. The process of transforming a collection of players into an effective unit must be done in the equivalent of hyper speed.
Barbee likened Kentucky’s annual now-or-never set up to a roller coaster.
“They’re typical freshmen until late January or early (to) mid-February,” he said.
By that standard, Kentucky is all but humming into Tuesday night’s game against Mississippi State.
“I think we’re ahead of schedule,” PJ Washington said. “Last year, we didn’t really figure it out until late February. But now we’re in January figuring it out. We’ve just got to keep on this path.”
When asked why he thought Kentucky was ahead of schedule, Washington said, “I feel like we want it more. Everybody’s still in the gym working. Everybody’s locked in and focused on what the team needs.”
On offense, freshmen like Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro are becoming more proficient at using screens, Barbee said. Yes, he added, it helps having someone like graduate transfer Reid Travis setting the screens. “You don’t want to run into Reid,” Barbee said, “because you’re going to stop in your tracks.”
Herro, in particular, brings a level of confidence unusual for a freshman. Maybe unusual even by Kentucky’s standard.
“He had it from day one,” said Barbee, who called Herro the “ultimate confidence guy.
“Never rattled. Never flustered. It doesn’t matter the time, score, situation, level of the game, opponent. It doesn’t matter. … He’s just out there having fun, playing the game of basketball. That’s why he doesn’t get rattled.”
The roller-coaster analogy applies to defense, too. Barbee saw UK farther up the hill than in previous seasons.
Typically, the players’ heads are still spinning as they try to absorb a variety of offenses at this juncture of the season. Not this time around.
“They’re getting settled into a rhythm …,” Barbee said. “They’re getting more and more comfortable on the defensive end of the floor.”
Washington echoed the sentiment. “Everybody’s buying into the system,” he said. “That’s beautiful for us right now.”
Mississippi State, 14-3 overall and 2-2 in the Southeastern Conference, is a veteran team that typically starts two seniors (Quinndary Weatherspoon and Aric Holman), a junior (Lamar Peters), a third-year sophomore (Abdul Ado) and a sophomore point guard that is in a second season as a regular (Nick Weatherspoon).
Unlike Auburn, which plays at a frenetic pace, State is a deliberate team that can force opponents to sustain defense well into the shot clock.
“They don’t get rushed,” Barbee said, “and they get the shots they want every time down.”
Washington acknowledged that Kentucky is more suited for a fast pace.
“Honestly, we just need to keep the pace (fast) …,” he said. “We’re a lot better doing that than the half-court offense.”
More than once earlier this season, Calipari suggested that Kentucky was susceptible to overconfidence.
Barbee dismissed the notion of Tuesday night being a so-called “trap game.” It comes three days after the highly-anticipated game at Auburn. It comes four days before the Cats play Kansas in a SEC-Big 12 Challenge game featuring two top-10 teams.
“You would say that if they weren’t ranked in the top 25,” Barbee said of State, which is ranked No. 22. He cited State’s combination of skill and experience.
“They’re as good as any team in our league,” Barbee said. “For that reason, no. Not a trap game. These guys have our full attention.”
No. 22 Mississippi State at No. 8 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Records: MSU 14-3 (2-2 SEC); UK 14-3 (4-1 SEC)
Series: UK leads 95-20
Last meeting: UK won 78-65 on Jan. 23, 2018, in Rupp Arena
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1