Kentucky basketball needed a win. Mission accomplished. But more questions lie ahead.
The main objective for the Kentucky Wildcats coming into this week should have been to emerge on the other side with two victories. No style points necessary.
In that sense, the Cats are halfway home. With few style points accrued.
Kentucky defeated a short-handed Mississippi squad 75-66 on the road Tuesday night for its fifth consecutive victory in Southeastern Conference play and got back in the win column after a home loss to Kansas over the weekend.
John Calipari summed things up just about right.
“We did what we had to do to win the game,” the UK coach said in his postgame radio interview.
There weren’t a whole lot of bright spots in this Kentucky basketball victory. Still, Calipari was searching for the silver linings afterward as he keeps trying to will this team — now 15-7, 6-3 in the Southeastern Conference — to greater things as the regular season hits the home stretch.
Calipari didn’t have to look too far to find one positive. That would be Antonio Reeves, who hit big shot after big shot — finishing with a season-high 27 points despite taking just a dozen attempts from the floor. He was 8-for-12 on field goals, 6-for-7 from three-point range and a perfect 5-for-5 at the free-throw line.
With Kentucky finding itself in a 15-8 hole early on, Reeves came off the bench to hit two big three-pointers amid a 10-0 Wildcats run. With UK coming out of the halftime locker room tied 32-all with the lowly Rebels, he scored eight points in the first five minutes of the second half, hitting his first four shots out of the break to put a little distance between the Cats and Ole Miss.
“Man, he was on fire,” teammate Sahvir Wheeler said. “That’s the Antonio we were seeing in highlights. That’s the Antonio we saw in the summer. He’s definitely had some spurts where he’s done that this year, but tonight was really big — on the road. … He made some big shots, some timely shots. He was aggressive. And he kept going.”
Wheeler deserves mention, too.
It was announced a few minutes before tip-off that starting point guard Cason Wallace would be out for the game due to a knee injury sustained earlier in the week. (He’s listed as “day to day” and should return to action soon.)
With Wallace out, Wheeler stepped in. The senior guard had been Kentucky’s starter at the point until he was sidelined with a shoulder injury going into the Cats’ game at No. 5 Tennessee this month. UK ended up winning that one, a victory that sparked a four-game winning streak and revived hopes of a possibly special season for the Wildcats.
Even when Wheeler — the SEC’s leader in assists going on three seasons — returned, Calipari stuck with what worked. Wallace was running the show, and Wheeler was relegated to backup duty. Through it all, the Kentucky coach praised his veteran playmaker for putting the team first.
On Tuesday night, Wheeler dished out nine assists and committed just one turnover.
Afterward, Calipari touted his team’s “next-man-up mentality” and singled out other role players. Chris Livingston for grabbing seven rebounds. Adou Thiero for running the point when Wheeler left at the end of the first half with an ankle injury. Daimion Collins for coming in and providing a spark — four points in two minutes, with one huge dunk — in the first half.
Nearly three months into a season filled with negativity — and now halfway through an SEC schedule that keeps raising questions about this team — Calipari tried to accentuate the positives Tuesday night.
But there probably wasn’t a whole lot that happened in Oxford to change anyone’s opinion of this squad.
Calipari said Oscar Tshiebwe’s play in pick-and-roll defense situations was “way better,” but he and his teammates were still beaten multiple times when Ole Miss went to ball-screen looks.
Reeves was great from three-point range. Everyone else combined to go 0-for-5 from deep. On that point, noted sharpshooter CJ Fredrick continued his slump, scoreless in 20 minutes and 0-for-2 from the floor. Fredrick is now 5-for-26 from three-point range over his last five games and 10-for-39 (25.6 percent) from deep since returning from an injury to his shooting hand.
Any road win in the SEC is worth celebrating, but the crowd wasn’t much Tuesday night, and neither was the competition. The SJB Pavilion was at less than half of its capacity due to a looming ice storm that kept fans away. The Rebels’ band and cheerleaders weren’t even there.
Ole Miss was also missing its two leading scorers — Matthew Murrell and Daeshun Ruffin — and fell to 1-8 in the league with the loss but still managed to keep things close with the Cats for most of the night. The Rebels’ lone SEC win came against South Carolina, by far the lowest-rated team in the conference. The Gamecocks’ only SEC win came in Rupp Arena last month, a defeat that will continue to haunt UK up until Selection Sunday.
Another bad stat for the Cats: that 1-6 record in Quad 1 games, an important sorting tool for the NCAA Tournament selection committee. They couldn’t do anything to better that record against Ole Miss on Tuesday, and the same goes for their home game against Florida on Saturday night. Both will go down as Quad 2 games.
Basically, the Cats just needed to get through these two unscathed. The major bracketology websites were pretty much in agreement on Kentucky coming into the week — the consensus being that this UK team is barely on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. One slip-up could put the Cats on the outside looking in.
They avoided that in Oxford.
If they can get past Florida on Saturday night, four of their next five games will be against Quad 1 opponents. And racking up some wins in those matchups would go a long way toward bolstering their March Madness résumé.
“It’s way early,” Calipari said. “What we’re trying to do is, ‘All right, one game. Who’s next? Let’s win the next game.’ That’s all I’m worried about. … I don’t even know the next game. I’m staying focused right where I am.”
Florida at Kentucky
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Florida 12-9 (5-3 SEC), Kentucky 15-7 (6-3)
Series: Kentucky leads 107-41
Last meeting: Kentucky won 71-63 on March 5, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.
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