When composing a list of keys to the game against a juggernaut like Kentucky, it ends up resembling less of a blueprint and more like a prayer to the basketball gods. There are some obvious tenets to follow, such as hoping that your guards have peak shooting performances and that theirs have the opposite. The last time Ole Miss pulled off the upset, they shot 47 percent from three and had a +7 turnover margin.
As desperate as holding out hope against a group so rich in talent may seem, the Wildcats are still putting things together, and the downside of relying heavily on freshmen has occasionally reared its ugly head. John Calipari has already voiced what he sees as a lack of discipline in his team.
More often than not, they’ve been too good for it to matter, leading the SEC in offensive rating. The only player on their roster with a defensive box plus/minus below zero is the coach’s son, who really wants you to know that he earned his spot on the team.
Still, there are actionable weaknesses that the Rebels should at least try to exploit if they want to have a chance on Thursday.
Ole Miss should try to push the pace.
While the Rebels have been mostly solid in their halfcourt offense, they’re not likely to experience similar success against Kentucky when things are slowed down. The Wildcats have one of the best non-transition defenses in the nation, allowing an effective field goal percentage of just 42.7 percent in those situations. In transition, on the other hand, that figure has gone up to 55 percent — not terrible, but bad by Kentucky standards.
Ole Miss has yet to create much of an advantage when trying to run the floor, as their transition vs. non-transition shooting numbers are essentially the same. A lot of this simply has to do with shot selection — they’ve settled far too often for two-point jumpers in transition, converting an abysmal 10 percent of those. On the other hand, they’ve made 39 percent of their transition threes, so there’s still hope for the Rebels to produce here.
This year’s Kentucky team stands out from prior versions by its own tendency to speed things up, racking up 80 possessions per game (6th most in Division 1). Judging by the gap in talent in this match-up, it doesn’t entirely make sense, as they’re more likely to create an edge by dragging things out and avoiding mistakes. The Rebels could benefit from leaning into this frantic new habit of the Wildcats.
For opportunities in transition to even occur, they’ll need to get some stops on the other end, of course.
Limiting Malik Monk is critical, but may not be enough.
So far, Monk has been Calipari’s most efficient high-volume wing scorer during his entire coaching tenure in Lexington, and it’s not particularly close. He has a way of washing away what would otherwise be a steadfast nationwide hatred for the Wildcats, somehow turning Kentucky basketball into a fun viewing experience. Nearly half of the Wildcats’ made three-pointers come from him, and the rest of the team has shot under 30 percent from beyond the arc combined.
Ole Miss has begun to improve on the initially glaring issue of defending the three, having held both Murray State and South Alabama to under 23 percent from downtown. Even if the Rebels muster up a similar performance against Kentucky on the perimeter, the Wildcats have plenty of other ways to score.
The Rebels need to pack the paint.
The Wildcats have been very efficient in scoring at the rim, converting a nice 69 percent near the basket (28th in Division 1). The rotation of Ole Miss bigs have actually held their own in this regard, blocking 19 percent of shots at the rim (21st), so there’s still hope of slowing them down in the paint.
Kentucky’s loss to Louisville came partly due to an inability to recognize a trend in poor outside shooting and look for inside options. Monk made just six of 17, while the frontcourt duo of Wenyen Gabriel and Edrice Adebayo only saw eight shot attempts combined.
Perhaps the Wildcats’ current lack of a tight scoring hierarchy results in an off night offensively, and hyper-efficient bigs like Adebayo continue to not get their share of looks. The reality is that you need more than just a few things to break your way to beat this team. Andy Kennedy could make plenty of sound tactical choices and still fall short, and that’s just fine, because this is Kentucky.