No. 23 Kentucky continues to improve as they host Ole Miss

LEXINGTON, Ky. — No. 23 Kentucky, back in the AP Top 25 after a two-week absence, will go in search of its fourth straight win when Ole Miss visits Rupp Arena Wednesday in the final home game of the season.

Kentucky (20-9, 9-7) is currently locked in a four-way tie for third place in the Southeastern Conference and vying to remain in one of the top four spots in the standings to gain a double bye for the league tournament next week in St. Louis. Teams with a double bye do not play until Friday and need to win only three games to claim the championship.

Since losing four in a row for the first time under coach John Calipari, UK has now won three in a row — Alabama and Missouri at home and Arkansas on the road during which UK overcame an 11-0 deficit.

“Right before your eyes, we’re becoming a better basketball team,” Calipari said.

Kentucky has topped 80 points in all three wins.

“In March you’ve got to be able to score more than 60,” Calipiari said. “There was a time in this season we were — 62 was a big number, 63. I kept telling these guys you can’t win in that tournament. You’ve got to be able to get 75, 80 on the board against a good team because they may get the same on you because they’re a good team. We’re starting to play and figure it out and I’m proud of them.”

The UK coach always faces a rebuild with tremendous roster turnover each year as talented freshmen exit for the NBA, but this is his youngest team ever and his most challenging.

“The reason I’m so relaxed and having fun coaching you, I’m not fighting everybody,” Calipari told the team. “It was only a month ago, three weeks ago half the team, it was a fight to get them to play how we were trying to get them to play.”

Complicating the issue was that freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt did not join the team until Jan. 16 after missing the first 17 games to a foot injury.

“It took us a while to figure out the team,” Calipari said. “It took time to figure out Kevin Knox, and how we were going to play Jarred and what we were going to do. Jarred joining us midseason made it hard.”

Though only two of them start, Calipari has settled on his best five — guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Quade Green and forwards Vanderbilt, Knox and PJ Washington. All are freshmen.

“What you’re seeing is a team that can play fast and a team that can grind it out,” Calipari said. “You’re seeing when I put Jarred and PJ in there, a team that can really, really rebound. And our assist-to-turnover ratio, which was under water, is now going the right way.”

Knox tops Kentucky at 15.6 points per game. Next comes Gilgeous-Alexander at 12.9, Hamidou Diallo, 10.8; Washington, 10.3; and Green, 9.9. Vanderbilt averages 5.9 points and a team best 7.8 rebounds while playing just over 16 minutes per game.

By contrast, the season for Ole Miss (12-17, 5-11) has been spiraling with losses in eight of its last nine games. Coach Andy Kennedy, who had previously announced he would leave at the end of the season, resigned immediately when the losing streak reached seven in a row on Feb. 17.

Tony Madlock, an assistant to Kennedy the last four seasons, took over as acting head coach. The Rebels are 1-1 under Madlock. They won 90-87 in overtime at Missouri and lost 73-65 last Saturday against Tennessee in Oxford.

“It’s a tough situation, especially for the guys,” Madlock said. “You’ve been hearing the same voice all year and now a new voice comes in, it’s something we’ve got to deal with. We can’t change it and we’ve just got to move forward.”

Senior guard Deandre Burnett leads Ole Miss in scoring at 14.2 points per game. Next comes junior guard Terence Davis at 13.2 and sophomore guard Breein Tyree and junior forward Bruce Stevens, each at 10.3.

“We’re going to demand that these guys play hard, play for each other, that’s all you can do at this time of the year,” Madlock said. “That’s all you can do and that’s all we’re going to try and make them do.”