By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel
I t’s rare that a college basketball team fighting for its tournament life has to worry about overlooking a conference opponent in late February.
Oddly, that will be the case Wednesday night when UK hosts Mississippi State at Rupp Arena. The Cats, coming off arguably their best win of the season Saturday over Missouri, can ill afford to slip up to a team that has lost 12 straight games.
Sticking with his overall tone of this season, head coach John Calipari is taking nothing for granted.
“This team is capable (of beating us),” he said. “If we don’t have the maturity to understand, ‘One week ago, where were we?’ You can go right back to where you were if you don’t have maturity or toughness.”
UK showed a resiliency in its win over Missouri Saturday that it hadn’t in the post-Nerlens Noel era.
Led by graduate student Julius Mays’ 24 points and clutch plays late, the Cats got their biggest win when they needed it the most.
“Even through adversity, we’re learning how to play without (Noel),” sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer said. “I think we’re a tough team even without him.”
Mays has been one of the few steady producers for UK throughout this tumultuous season, particularly of late. He has scored in double figures in six of the last seven games, playing at least 32 minutes in all of those.
“He’s a wonderful young man,” Calipari said. “He has taken on that role of holding people accountable … Thank goodness he’s on this team.”
Another major, yet overlooked, key to the Cats’ back-to-back wins has been sophomore guard Ryan Harrow.
After a two-game straight where he didn’t score a point with just one assist (both losses), he has turned back into the quality point guard that Calipari envisioned in the offseason.
In two wins last week, Harrow averaged 14 points and five assists, while shooting 53 percent from the field.
Mississippi State travels to Lexington after a 72-31 loss to Vanderbilt at home. They have scored 55 or fewer points in 10 different games this season.As a team, they shoot just 39 percent from the field, compared to UK’s 48 percent team shooting.
Given the grand scheme of what has become a concise, pressure-filled, seven-game season, this game poses little stress to the Cats. However, given all that has transpired so far, the players know they would be foolish to overlook any opponent, regardless of stature.
“We really know we can’t look past anybody,” junior guard Jarrod Polson said. “A lot of teams come into Rupp and go off … If a team starts hitting shots, it’s a totally different ballgame.”
The game will tip at 8 p.m. Wednesday night and be televised locally on the SEC Network.