Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 76-55 thumping of Mississippi State on Tuesday at Rupp Arena:
1. UK’s three-point defense is no longer a joke
It wasn’t that long ago that John Calipari told his current collection of Cats that they were the worst three-point defensive team he had ever coached. The reaction. “Guys laughed,” said point guard Ashton Hagans on Tuesday, before adding that it was the “clown” Keldon Johnson who got the laughter started.
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UK’s perimeter defense might still need work, but it’s much better than when Calipari’s club was ranked somewhere in the 300s out of 350-or-so Division I teams in opponents’ three-point percentage. Georgia made just four of 27 threes in UK’s 69-49 drubbing of the Dawgs last week in Athens. And after Auburn went 13-for-30 from behind the arc Saturday, Mississippi State was just three of 20 from downtown.
This is the same Mississippi State team that entered Rupp Arena ranked 26th nationally in three-point field goal percentage at 38.3 percent. The Bulldogs were averaging nine three-point makes a game. Against the Cats, however, MSU missed 15 of its first 16 tries from behind the three-point line. “They missed some shots they normally make,” Calipari said afterward.
MSU Coach Ben Howland wasn’t buying all of that. Yes, said Howland, his team took some bad shots, especially early. But the coach credited the Kentucky defense with causing the Bulldogs to rush. And, as UK assistant Tony Barbee said Monday, while Auburn likes to shoot in the first eight seconds of the shot clock, State likes to shoot in the final eight seconds of the shot clock.
Taking too many early shots, the Bulldogs ended up shooting 31.1 percent for the game, well below their 48 percent average. State ended up averaging just 0.791 points per possession, just ahead of Georgia’s 0.747 last week. And Mississippi State is a much better team than Georgia.
Oh yeah, one more thing, Kentucky made eight of its 16 threes on Tuesday.
2. PJ Washington’s motor is maddening
John Calipari keeps wanting more from his sophomore forward. Tuesday night, Washington scored 21 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked four shots. Calipari wants more. Washington also made three of five three-pointers. Calipari wants more. Washington was a big difference in the game. Calipari wants more.
When Washington scored 29 points in the Cats’ 84-83 overtime loss to Seton Hall in Madison Square Garden back in December, Cal said he wanted “35 and 20” from Washington every night. When Washington led all scorers Tuesday, Cal said, “I still think he played without that motor arts of the game and that’s what was making me angry.”
And this: “But that’s how good I think he is.”
Washington did show up, unlike two of State’s better players. Senior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon played to his talent, scoring 19 points. But point guard Lamar Peters did not start because of an apparent mix-up when MSU submitted its starting lineup. That set the tone for a night in which Peters was two-of-nine from the floor, including one of five from three-point range. Meanwhile, Owensboro native Aric Holman fouled out after 20 minutes of zero points and two rebounds. He came in averaging 12.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
Meanwhile, Washington scored 20 or more points for the third time this season — 25 vs. North Dakota; 29 vs. Seton Hall; 21 vs. Mississippi State. His four blocked shots tied his career high. He made nine of his 15 shots. “He really hurt us,” Howland said.
And Calipari wants more because he believes Washington can produce more.
3. Get out the brooms for this run of ranked teams
It started with Auburn. Bruce Pearl’s Tigers were ranked 14th. Kentucky stormed into Auburn Arena, built a 17-point lead, lost it, then squeezed out an 82-80 road victory. Tuesday brought Mississippi State. Howland’s Bulldogs were ranked 22nd. Its 13-point lead trimmed to two (41-39), Kentucky outscored State 35-16 the rest of the way.
Saturday brings Kansas to Rupp Arena for the annual SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The Jayhawks showed up at No. 9 in Monday’s AP poll before beating No. 24 Iowa State 80-76 later Monday night. Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson scored 29 points and grabbed 15 rebounds for coach Bill Self’s team, which lost center Udoka Azubuike for the season to a torn hand ligament.
Calipari said he told his team, “The Kansas game is really, really big, because it’s the next game.” He added, “I haven’t watched one thing on Kansas.” He will, though. Now 5-1 in the SEC, a win over the top-10 Jayhawks would look good once the NCAA Selection Committee sits down to check out the Big Blue resume.
Be honest. Heading into this three-game stretch, you thought the Cats would be doing well to go 2-1, that 1-2 was a distinct possibility and 0-3 was not out of the question. At all. And yet, now with two down and one to go, kenpom gives the Cats a 65 percent chance at executing the three-game sweep.
Calipari cited the two “H” words — humble and hungry. But he also said this: “We’re just beginning to climb to where we need to go.”