It was January 27th, the Cats had won their first five games in SEC play and had a nine-game winning streak overall. They were finally gathering respect nationally, receiving a No. 24 ranking in the Associated Press poll. Kentucky was rolling and many envisioned Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks leading the way to a regular season conference crown.
Then, the unthinkable happened. The Wildcats got absolutely out-everythinged by an out-manned Ole Miss squad. An Ole Miss squad that entered the game on a three-game losing streak and had a 1-4 record in conference. An Ole Miss squad that was missing three key players, including their all-conference point guard Chris Warren, due to knee injuries.
Despite all of this, Kentucky left Oxford with their first SEC loss, 85-80. The Rebels’ zone took the Cats completely out of their offense and for the first time we saw Jodie Meeks standing around a bit. The Cats were absolutely bullied underneath by Malcolm White and company. They were killed on the glass, 42-32, as the inability to pull down defensive boards consistently led to Ole Miss points. Kentucky couldn’t find a way to keep Terrico White and the Ole Miss guards out of the lane. And they couldn’t defend the three as the Rebels knocked down ten of them.
At the time these problems were something we had seen before, but never of this magnitude. Billy Gillispie and the Kentucky fan base hoped that it was just a bad game or maybe even a case of overlooking an opponent. Not things you want to see from a potential conference champion, but not a season-killer either.
We thought. Turns out these deficiencies could be a season-killer. The same things continuously haunted the Wildcats throughout the remainder of the season and they were unable to regain that swagger.
Including that loss, Kentucky is 3-8, after starting SEC play at 5-0, and they have lost their last four. For the Cats to make their 18th straight trip to the NCAA tournament they have to do one thing: Win four games in four days to claim the SEC tournament. A tough task for a team that has won three games in the last month-and-a-half. Some say three wins will do it, but let’s first focus on the Rebels.
Ole Miss struggled down the stretch, just as the Cats did. They lost three of their last four, with their lone victory coming at Arkansas in overtime. They rank in the bottom four in the conference in scoring offense and defense.
On defense, Kentucky must first focus on the Ole Miss guards, David Huertas (6-5, junior) and Terrico White (6-5, freshman). Huertas is leading the Rebels in scoring with 18.2 per game and has scored in double figures in all but one game this season.
Recently, Huertas has turned the reigns over to the SEC freshman of the year, Terrico White. White is a freakish athlete and came to Oxford with a reputation as a tremendous scorer. He has lived up to the billing, especially as of late. He is fourth in the SEC in conference scoring with 18.4 per-game and has scored in double figures in his last 11 games. White has also improved his stroke from deep. He has knocked down 36 three-pointers in those same 11 games.
Despite the fact that they killed Kentucky underneath in their earlier victory, the Rebels are just not strong underneath. They are eighth in the league in rebounding and 10th in blocked shots. Look for Malcolm White (6'9", sophomore), who had one of his two 20-point games on the season against Kentucky, and Murphy Holloway (6'7", freshman) to man the frontcourt.
On paper this is a game that Kentucky should definitely win, but they must first do something to prove that they have not quit on the season. Late in the year, it just did not appear as if the Cats were having fun, and it is hard to play loose and be effective when playing becomes a chore. Playing basketball for Kentucky comes with a lot of pressure and when things don’t go right that pressure can weigh down a team.
Sometimes when things go wrong, the only way to fix the problem is to go back to the scene where your troubles began. While, Tampa is not Oxford, the Kentucky Wildcats get that opportunity in round one of the SEC tournament. They get a chance to redeem that initial loss to the Rebels and foreseeably for their lousy play of late.
But, can the Wildcats forget their late season struggles and start anew in the SEC tournament?
If they can, and they get that first round victory against the Rebels, then maybe they find a sense of rejuvenation and start enjoying playing basketball again. After all, the game of basketball is all about having fun. If you aren’t having it, you aren’t going to win. It sounds too simple but sometimes the simplest things are the purest.
Sure, four games in four days is going to be a tough task. If Kentucky can get that first one, who knows what will happen. Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks are still wearing blue, so it is possible. But, to make a run they have to concentrate on one thing. Have fun again.