UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky will face a new, improved Stefan Moody when Ole Miss visits

Mississippi Rebels guard Stefan Moody (42) drove in for two of his 25 points as No. 1 Kentucky played Ole Miss on Jan. 6, 2015, in Lexington, Ky.
Mississippi Rebels guard Stefan Moody (42) drove in for two of his 25 points as No. 1 Kentucky played Ole Miss on Jan. 6, 2015, in Lexington, Ky. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

A year ago almost to the day, Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody wowed the Rupp Arena crowd. His 25 points, which equaled the second-most scored by a Kentucky opponent last season, threw a major scare at the Cats.

As Ole Miss prepares to play at Kentucky on Saturday, Moody is playing at a wow-plus standard this season. He is averaging more points (23.8 vs. 16.6 last season), making more assists (4.3 vs. 2.4) and shooting better (from two- and three-point range).

Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy found it difficult to believe there’s another player in college basketball more important to his team than Moody.

“I’m not sure there would be a more productive player as far as generating more points . . . ,” Kennedy said. “I’m not sure if anybody else is more effective at doing that. And we need him to continue to do that in order to be successful.”

Moody leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring. If you count each of his assists as representing two points, he’s accounted for 42.1 percent of the Rebels’ offense. He’s taken 29.1 percent of the Rebels’ shots, 35.8 percent of the three-point attempts and 30.7 percent of the free throws.

To put that in perspective, Tyler Ulis has accounted for 28.1 percent of Kentucky’s points.

Moody, a 5-foot-10 senior, has been so productive despite several reasons why he should not be.

On a teleconference Wednesday, Kennedy listed the obstacles Moody has overcome.

Position change. He moved from shooting guard to point guard after the season’s third game, a loss to George Mason. Ole Miss (10-2) has gone 8-1 since, which includes the seven-game winning streak the Rebels bring to Rupp Arena.

Injury. Surgeons put a pin in Moody’s left tibia in June. This led Kennedy to suggest Moody played last season despite a stress fracture, which makes his performance against UK all the more impressive.

Target of opposing defenses. Moody has acknowledged that he “probably snuck up on a lot of people” last season. Now, opponents make containing Moody a priority.

“We’re already seeing it,” Kennedy said. “And I’m sure it will be no different on Saturday. The whole team (approach) is based on guarding him. So for him to still be able to score, for him to still be able to be efficient, for him to still be able to be plus assist-to-turnover is a tribute to his development as a player.”

Of course, Ole Miss plots ways to create scoring opportunities for Moody. Given his explosive style built upon a 46-inch vertical leap, he typically turns such opportunities into good shots for himself or teammates.

Only the basketball gods prevented Moody from leading Ole Miss to a victory at Kentucky last season. The fates intervened with 4:09 left in overtime. With the score tied 79-79, Willie Cauley-Stein fouled Moody on a three-point attempt. Moody, who ranked ninth nationally in free-throw accuracy, never got to the line. Leg cramps forced him to the bench. By rule, UK chose which Ole Miss player would shoot the free throws. M.J. Rhett, a 68.4 percent free thrower, made one of three in his first attempts from the line in the game. UK went on to win 89-86.

That was the first and, so far, only time Moody has left a game because of cramps. “That was the most fluke thing ever,” he said in a pleasant tone this preseason. “But I didn’t get mad about it. That’s ancient to me. I got over it a couple days later.”

Moody is on a basketball trajectory dotted by successes. As a high school senior in Kissimmee, Fla., he averaged 27.9 points and was a Parade All-American. He picked Florida Atlantic over Jacksonville State and Murray State.

When asked how many stars recruiting analysts put on Moody the high school prospect, Kennedy quipped, “I’m not sure he had a star. It was a foggy night.”

Of the lack of big-school recruiting interest, Moody said, “They don’t look for the best player. They just look for the biggest name, the name that popped, and my name wasn’t really one of them.

“It didn’t really even give me a chip (on the shoulder). I just didn’t think about it. I just followed my path.”

After averaging 15.7 points and being named Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year, he transferred to Kilgore College. There he was a junior college All-American.

“I thought he could be a dynamic scorer,” Kennedy said of Ole Miss’s recruitment of Moody. “And that’s exactly what he has become. He’s such an explosive, athletic guy, he can typically create enough space where he can get a look at the basket.”

Moody has had a knack for big games away from home. Besides the 25-point game at Rupp, he had 25 at Alabama, 29 at Mississippi State, 18 (including a game-winning shot) at Florida, 22 at Missouri and 26 at Georgia.

Moody remembers UK fans and Rupp Arena fondly. “I felt like I was playing for Kentucky,” he said. “Some of the fans were just cheering me on.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Saturday

Ole Miss at Kentucky

7 p.m. (SEC Network)

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