LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Top-ranked Kentucky has had nine days off to recharge from an impressive nonconference run that has ratcheted up projections of an unbeaten season.
Meeting those lofty expectations depends on the Wildcats (13-0) maintaining their edge and sharpness against Mississippi on Tuesday night in the Southeastern Conference opener.
The break hasn’t meant down time for Kentucky, which has held multiple daily workouts to ensure its two-platoon system can be as dominant in league play as it was outside the SEC with big wins over Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA in particular.
The Rebels (9-4) meanwhile look to provide a challenge with three starting guards averaging between 12 and 14 points. Mississippi also enters leading the nation with 78 percent free throw shooting and has made 42 3-pointers in the last five games.
Though Kentucky has handled things well the first two months with an average victory margin of nearly 28 points per game and wins over four ranked opponents, coach John Calipari has stressed carrying that effort into conference play – especially with schools looking to squelch those high hopes.
”He says the games are going to be a lot tougher, they’re going to come at us more,” said freshman guard Tyler Ulis, who turned 19 on Monday. ”We’ve just got to be ready for that and make sure we come ready to play.”
The Wildcats insist they’ve remained focused since their 58-50 win over No. 5 Louisville on Dec. 27. If anything, practices have been more competitive with the platoons taking turns beating each other on different days.
”I felt like we were playing a game because we’re so competitive,” freshman guard Devin Booker said. ”No one likes to lose and both platoons go at each other hard, and I think that’s what’s making us better each and every day.”
Kentucky’s challenge is keeping that intensity as prohibitive favorites to win a conference considered down by some observers. That opinion might be premature considering No. 23 Arkansas re-entered this week’s rankings with teams such as Florida and South Carolina looking to contend.
Mississippi meanwhile brings in a backcourt capable of hitting perimeter shots. The Rebels shot a season-best 55 percent Saturday in a 92-63 win over Austin Peay, including 11 of 21 from 3-point range.
The Rebels have made 41 percent from behind the arc the past five games, and Calipari’s strategy is keeping their guard trio of junior Stefan Moody (13.9 points per game) and seniors Jarvis Summers (13.3) and Ladarius White (12.5) from warming up against Kentucky.
”If they’re making shots, then we have to try to drive them off the 3-point line,” Calipari said. ”When you’re playing teams that are willing to shoot that many, you just don’t know.”
Mississippi has earned impressive wins over No. 23 Creighton, Cincinnati and Oregon but also lost to Western Kentucky and Dayton. Shooting has often told the story for the Rebels, who must click on offense if they aim to beat the nation’s best defensive team.
Especially one that’s well-rested.
”Even though we’ve had some quality wins in non-league,” Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said, ”we’ve had some puzzling losses because we’ve been inconsistent in our guard play. … We know we’re going to have to go in and make open shots tomorrow night to give ourselves any hope.”
Note: Calipari said that junior forward Alex Poythress is scheduled to have surgery Tuesday to repair a left anterior cruciate ligament torn last month.