John Clay

John Clay: Cats learn SEC foes won't just roll over

Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison was called for a foul as he and Mississippi guard Jarvis Summers went for a loose ball.
Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison was called for a foul as he and Mississippi guard Jarvis Summers went for a loose ball. Herald-Leader

It was supposed to be so, so easy.

No sweat, no problem. The SEC wasn't supposed to be just bad in basketball, the SEC was supposed to be really bad in basketball. So, surely, as the No. 1 team in America, the most dominant team in quite some time, Kentucky would take the conference in a cakewalk.

Nobody told Mississippi.

Or maybe they did.

"Every team is going to come after us," UK Coach John Calipari said.

The Rebels came right at Kentucky on Tuesday night, all right, extending the nation's top-ranked team into overtime before losing 89-86 in Rupp Arena.

So much for the cakewalk.

The Rebels hit huge shots, huge three-point shots. They went hip-to-hip with UK under the basket, outrebounding the taller Cats in regulation. They scored more points in the paint than the tallest team this side of the NBA.

Had Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody, who had been ridiculously good all night with 25 points, not cramped up late in the game, "we probably lose the game," Calipari said.

And yet, that was never supposed to happen, not when all we had heard about was all the bad losses the SEC had suffered in basketball.

"Hopefully this will get people to realize and look at the numbers," said Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy. "I know the dialogue has already started about how bad (SEC basketball) is, but the numbers don't say that. We're one of four leagues in the country that have five teams in the top 50 and we're not one of them. We're not one of those top-50 teams."

Ole Miss played more like a top-20 team, maybe top 10. They played the Cats much better than Kansas or Texas or North Carolina or UCLA or Louisville.

"I see it as (Kennedy's) team played out of their minds and we kind of didn't have the fight we needed," Calipari said. "A lot of young guys not knowing and even a lot of vets not understanding that there's no one that's going to surrender. They're playing their hearts out and that's what you saw from Mississippi today."

Here's the thing: These SEC teams have ears and eyes.

They know the perception that the conference leaves something to be desired when it comes to hoops. They've also heard all the talk about Kentucky having a shot at running the table. Each SEC team wants to be the team that knocks the Cats off that table.

Then you factor in that the league is not nearly as bad as advertised. Example, it wasn't that Kentucky played that poorly on Tuesday.

Sure, this was not the Kentucky defensive effort we are so used to seeing. Ole Miss shot 50.9 percent in regulation and 49.2 percent for the game against a UK defense that was allowing teams to shoot just 29.7 percent from the floor.

Offensively, however, the Cats made 11 of 20 three-point shots for 55 percent. The formula states that if Kentucky hits threes then you have no shot at beating the Cats. Guess what. Kentucky hit threes and still nearly got beat.

"Escaped," was the word Calipari used.

"This is just one of 18 games and our guys have to understand that," Kennedy said.

His point was that his team needs to play every game with the same sort of effort and skill it displayed on Tuesday against the No. 1 team in the country, the team that came into the SEC opener as a 22-point favorite.

But the same holds true for Kentucky. Tuesday was just one of 18 SEC games for the Cats, as well.

And there will be 17 other conference teams — most better than you might think — who might be emboldened by what Ole Miss nearly did, thinking they can be the team that knocks off the nation's No. 1.

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