LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — The dark cloud that hung over Kentucky following Nerlens Noel’s season-ending knee injury has given way to a silver lining in the form of a modest two-game winning streak.
The initial forecast wasn’t encouraging after the Wildcats (19-8, 10-4 Southeastern Conference) were drilled at Tennessee in their first game without their defensive anchor 10 days ago. But they’ve boosted their NCAA tournament prospects with back-to-back wins over Vanderbilt and Missouri behind the play of Julius Mays and Willie Cauley-Stein.
As a team, they Wildcats have displayed the precision, communication and dedication coach John Calipari has sought all season.
Still, Kentucky can’t overlook last-place Mississippi State (7-19, 2-12) on Wednesday night. A loss to the struggling Bulldogs — who have lost 12 straight — would be a devastating setback.
“This team is capable,” Calipari said of the Bulldogs’ upset potential, “and if we don’t have the maturity to understand one week ago, where were we? One week ago, we were in coffins and people were trying to nail ‘em shut. Now, all of sudden we’re like, ok, wow.
“You can go right back to where you were if you don’t have maturity or toughness. … We’ll see.”
Right now, the Wildcats appear to have a grip on both qualities.
To a player, Saturday night’s 90-83 overtime victory over Missouri marked Kentucky’s best all-around performance this season. Mays’ 24 points led four Wildcats with 16 or more points and outdid one of the SEC’s best offensive teams, but Kentucky’s resolve in overcoming a 13-point first half deficit demonstrated its growing poise.
Then again, the Wildcats had nowhere to go but up after losing Noel on Feb. 12 and then getting hammered by 30 points four days later by the Volunteers. After some individual soul searching, team meetings and stress relievers including a dodgeball game with a helmeted Calipari, Kentucky has been crisper in practices and games.
The Wildcats have shot 50 percent from the field in both games and Cauley-Stein is getting help while he adjusts to taking over for Noel in the post. The 7-footer has done his part, averaging 13.5 points, 9.5 rebounds while blocking 10 shots, earning SEC freshman of the week honors.
“It really hurt losing like that, so we really just used that as motivation and didn’t want to be back in that situation again,” sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer said of the Tennessee loss. “We were really focused in practice following that game, so that’s why we’re starting to play better.”
Guards Archie Goodwin (34 points) and Harrow (28) have both been strong the past two games in areas aside from scoring. Besides his 16 points and six assists against Missouri that also sparked teammates to get involved, Harrow also grabbed eight rebounds.
And Kentucky wouldn’t have beaten Missouri without Goodwin’s offensive boost to start the second half. The freshman scored all 18 of his points after halftime — including seven that rallied the Wildcats from a 35-31 deficit at the break to a 42-39 lead — and didn’t get down on himself despite seven turnovers.
A more engaged Alex Poythress also got into the act and contributed. He showed the skills rarely seen since early this season, muscling his way to 21 points and seven rebounds against the Tigers.
Calipari has criticized his players for focusing on their own performance instead of the team aspect. With the Wildcats being able to keep their heads up — and in — a back-and-forth game is perhaps the biggest sign of their growth.
“Archie’s taking better shots, and Alex had a great game,” guard Jarrod Polson said. “Everybody’s changing in their own way, but they’re all just becoming more mature.”
Needing someone to bring it all together, fifth-year senior Mays has recently taken on the leadership role and is setting examples to follow with his perimeter shooting. He’s 6 for 14 from beyond the arc the past two games including 4 of 8 against Missouri; he sealed the victory with six free throws in overtime.
With another quality win for its tournament credentials, Kentucky wants to maintain its momentum against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are coming off Saturday’s 72-31 home loss to Vanderbilt, — Mississippi State’s lowest total of the shot clock era.
The rout was the latest blow in a hard-knock season for Mississippi State, left with just eight players because of injuries and suspensions. At this point, coach Rick Ray is hoping his team can hang in there down the stretch.
“When you have the offensive struggles we have, constantly coming down and not seeing the ball go through the hoop, it’s hard to have that competitive spirit on the defensive end,” Ray said.
“Ultimately, what you’d like to do is have a team that can persevere through some offensive struggles, but it’s just commonplace for guys to live through their offense.”