By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel
UK head coach John Calipari hasn’t coached a “must-win” regular season game in some time. Typically, his teams are good enough that their tournament resume is all but sealed this time of the year with quality wins spewed throughout.
This team, however, is nothing like any of his in recent memory.
The Cats travel to Oxford, Miss. Tuesday to take on No. 16 Ole Miss (17-2, 6-0 SEC). The Rebels have won nine in a row and are one of UK’s best chances to get a marquee win for their NCAA Tournament seeding.
“It’ll be really good for us to get a quality win against a good team like Ole Miss,” sophomore guard Ryan Harrow said. “We’re just trying to focus on playing our best game.”
Not only is Ole Miss tied atop the SEC standings, they boast the conference’s best scorer, junior guard Marshall Henderson.
Henderson is scoring 19.2 points per game and is known as an aggressive offensive player.
“We’re trying to figure out how we’ll play it,” Calipari said. “We did some stuff in practice yesterday, but he’s going to take 13 threes. Whether you’re on him, you’re not on him, he’s going to take 13 threes.”
That’s probably not an exaggeration. Henderson has taken at least 10 threes 14 times this season. His 35 percent mark from behind the arc isn’t staggering, but given his multitude of attempts, it’s difficult to deny him several makes.
After Texas A&M’s Elston Turner torched the Cats for 40 points on Jan. 12, Calipari knows he has to devise a better plan to stop players from getting into their rhythm.
“There may be special attention paid to him,” Calipari said. “But … A lot of times you want one guy to get 30 and let the other guys not get any. Now, that’s not how we played that kid Turner. But, there are times we do it.”
From UK’s perspective, freshman forward Alex Poythress is coming off his best game of the season. Poythress had 12 rebounds, a career high, and 20 points, his highest since mid-November.
Freshman center Nerlens Noel moved into second place on the UK single-season blocks list Saturday, passing Sam Bowie in the process. He’s currently on pace, given a 40-game season, to come within eight blocks of the torrid pace that Anthony Davis set last season.
The Cats again failed to garner any votes in Monday’s AP Poll, something that could be remedied by a signature win at a top-20 team. And in a hostile environment like Ole Miss, Calipari is relishing the opportunity.
“You’ve got to dig your heels in,” he said. “That’s why I’m saying all this stuff is good for our team. If we’re going to get it, it’s competing in games like this and learning and growing.”
The game will tip from Oxford, Miss. at 9 p.m. Tuesday night. It will be nationally televised on ESPN.