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Jan 16, 2024 4:05 am

No. 8 Kentucky looks to bounce back vs. Mississippi State

Kentucky’s identity this season is a team that plays fast and scores a lot. But it has been a good defensive team as well.

Until Saturday, that is, when the now No. 8 Wildcats let offensively challenged Texas A&M ring up 97 points in an overtime result that was Kentucky’s first Southeastern Conference loss.

The Wildcats will try to get back in the win column Wednesday night in Lexington, Ky., where they will host Mississippi State in another SEC contest.

On paper, Texas A&M didn’t figure to be the team that cracked the Wildcats’ defense. Kentucky ranked 91st in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (41.4 percent) through the weekend, and the Wildcats (12-3, 2-1 SEC) also ranked No. 15 in the nation in blocks (5.5 per game) and No. 58 in steals (8.4 per game).

However, the Aggies, who failed to reach 60 points in their first two SEC games, both losses, not only cracked the Kentucky code, they downright did a two-step on it. Texas A&M drilled 12 of 32 3-point attempts and got 31 points from preseason SEC Player of the Year Wade Taylor IV.

“They ran downhill the whole game,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said of the Aggies.

Yet Calipari and freshman guard Rob Dillingham seem to believe it’s more a situation of correctable errors rather than fatal flaws when it comes to defense.

“I feel like we’ve gotten better on defense since we started,” said Dillingham. “It just takes us playing games to get better. We got a group of guys that want to win and want to learn. So we’ll get better because we want to win.”

Dillingham (14.4 points per game) is one of five double-figure scorers for Kentucky, which ranked third in Division I in scoring through Sunday at 90.8 points per game. Antonio Reeves leads the balanced, diverse attack with 18.9 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field.

Meanwhile, Mississippi State (12-4, 1-2) faces a tall task in the trip to Rupp Arena. Coming off an 82-74 home loss to Alabama on Saturday, the Bulldogs now go to a venue where they haven’t won since 2009, facing a team they haven’t defeated since the 2021 SEC tournament.

On paper, this could be a strength-vs.-strength matchup. The loss to Alabama notwithstanding, Mississippi State boasted the 28th-best field-goal percentage defense (39.5 percent) and the 37th-best scoring defense (64.8 points per game) through the weekend.

However, if the Bulldogs are going to win where they rarely win, they will have to correct their turnover troubles on offense. Their giveaway rate (13.1 per game) was tied for 253rd in the nation through Sunday, and their free-throw percentage (71 percent) was 183rd. They made just 15 of 27 foul shots (55.6 percent) on Saturday.

“Unfortunately, we just didn’t make them when they really, really counted,” Mississippi State coach Chris Jans said.

Tolu Smith leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 16.8 ppg, while freshman guard Josh Hubbard contributes 15.1 off the bench. Five other Bulldogs chip in between 6.9 and 9.4 ppg.

The Wildcats have won 17 of their past 18 clashes with the Bulldogs, including a 71-68 win at Starkville, Miss., in the teams’ only matchup last season.

–Field Level Media

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