John Clay

John Clay: Win over Ole Miss made a Kentucky loss seem more possible than ever

Mississippi guard LaDarius White quieted the crowd late in regulation with a three-pointer. White finished with 15 points.
Mississippi guard LaDarius White quieted the crowd late in regulation with a three-pointer. White finished with 15 points. Herald-Leader

All along, when reciting the formula needed to beat this Kentucky basketball team, the opening line has been "First of all, a team has to play out of its mind."

Tuesday night, after Ole Miss nearly pulled off the feat, forcing the top-ranked Cats to overtime before losing 89-86, John Calipari said exactly that of Andy Kennedy's Rebels.

"I see it as his team played out of their minds," said the Kentucky coach, "and we, we kind of didn't have the fight that we need."

So was Tuesday night simply Mississippi having an out-of-body experience before another sellout crowd in Rupp Arena?

Or was Tuesday night proof that these run-the-table Cats are a little more vulnerable than we previously believed?

The post-game party line centered on Tuesday as proof that SEC basketball is better than advertised.

And there's good reason for such a conclusion. Despite its multitude of critics, the league is not that bad. In fact, you could make the case it's actually pretty good and getting better.

Still, even after UK lived dangerously close to the edge Tuesday, it would be foolish to doubt that the Cats are not only the best team in the conference, maybe even head and shoulders above the rest of the conference.

By the same token, the numbers say Ole Miss played above itself on Tuesday.

Coming into the game, the Rebels were shooting 43.8 percent as a team. They shot 49.2 percent against the Cats, a season-high for a UK opponent. Before Tuesday, the Rebels were shooting 34.8 percent from three-point range. Against Kentucky, they made nine of 17 three-pointers for 52.9 percent.

Where Ole Miss was spot-on was at the free throw line. The Rebels were shooting a healthy 78.4 percent from the stripe. They were 15-for-15 during regulation before a piece of very bad luck.

The team's best player on the night, Stefan Moody, cramped up after being fouled on a three-point shot one minute into overtime. Moody was unable to remain in the game. Kentucky got to pick the shooter, and tabbed M.J. Rhett, who missed two of three.

Ole Miss still wound up 19-for-22 from the line for 86.4 percent, but all three of those misses came in OT. And the Rebels lost the game by three.

So here's the key question: Was Ole Miss's glowing offensive performance a product of poor Kentucky defense, or for one night did all the stars align in the Rebels' favor and Ole Miss was just too good to be stopped?

As always, the correct answer probably lies somewhere in between. Ole Miss, especially Moody and teammate LaDarius White, hit some huge shots. Kentucky didn't do the greatest job defending those shots, either.

The surprising stat was points in the paint, where Ole Miss enjoyed a 30-26 edge over the tallest college team in America. The Rebels appeared to get those shots by using their bodies to get some space. Instead of milking the clock, Kennedy's team came right at the Cats with success, which filled the visitors with confidence.

What does this mean for Kentucky down the road? That depends if the Cats got the message.

They are probably no more vulnerable than when they were running through the non-conference likes of Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville. They are not invincible, however.

As Kennedy himself pointed out Tuesday, the computer numbers said Mississippi was not "a top-50 team." The Rebels were a 22-point underdog Tuesday night.

They began the year with a home loss to Charleston Southern. And yet they did have wins over Creighton, Cincinnati and at Oregon.

The numbers say South Carolina is better than Ole Miss, and the Cats have to play the Gamecocks in Columbia. The numbers say Florida is better than Ole Miss, and the Cats must play the Gators in Gainesville. The numbers say Georgia is better than Ole Miss, and the Cats must play the Bulldogs in Athens.

Kentucky may end up unbeaten, but after Tuesday we know they aren't necessarily unbeatable.

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