He has won 560 basketball games. He has taken three schools to four Final Fours. He has had three players drafted No. 1 overall, two drafted at No.2, and one drafted at No.3, 4, 5, and 6. He is John Calipari. While a lot of what he has accomplished has been vacated by the NCAA, there is no denying that he is one of the premier basketball coaches of this era. He will lead his Kentucky team (13-6, 4-2) into Oxford, seeking the Wildcats’ first win in Oxford in six years.
Despite the fact that UK is having an off-year by their standards, the way Ole Miss is preparing for the game, you’d think they were No.1 again. Earlier this season, fans were able to stroll into Tad Smith Coliseum midway through the first half and sit in the third or fourth row. Tonight, students will set up shop outside the arena at 4 p.m., four hours before the start of the game.
That is the excitement in Oxford, Miss. these days. The roundball Rebels have delayed the beginning of baseball banter by starting 17-2 and making moves to end the SEC’s longest drought of reaching “the Big Dance”.
Ole Miss has sold out their last four home games, with the passion for the basketball team reaching a fever pitch. Match that with one of the nation’s most storied basketball programs, and you have a marquee game that incites salivation from Ross Bjork & Co. Auburn even packed the house on Saturday night, proving that not only are the Rebels becoming heroes at home, they are becoming villains on the road. A compliment to any head coach.
That desire to defeat Ole Miss is built upon a few things: the idea that they are overrated due to their lack of quality wins, their bruising big men, and their newfound sense of swagger. I might be leaving something out here. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but I guess I could put two fingers up in the air for it. That’s right, it’s Marshall Henderson.
The SEC’s leading scorer burst onto the scene this year and is averaging 19.2 ppg and 20.2 screaming jaunts per game. He is the classic love him or hate him, depending on which team you support. Ole Miss fans call him eccentric, opposing fans call him immature. Ole Miss fans think he’s an emotional leader, opposing fans think that he lacks sportsmanship. Regardless of what you think of him as an opposing fan, one thing is for certain. You have got to try and stop him.
That is exactly what the Wildcats are going to try to do. Like Ole Miss, Kentucky starts a trio of guards. Led by Archie Goodwin, who is first on the team with 14.6 ppg and second with 3.3 apg, he is the catalyst. Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays will also get the nod tonight and both will look to get scoring early on. UK uses the Pepperdine drive-drive offense which creates a lot of open perimeter shots through good ball movement. Averaging over 15 apg, the ball movement is there, it is all up to Ole Miss to stop the shots from going in. That is something that the Rebels have been able to do all season as they lead the conference in three-point defense, holding opponents to 27.5 percent.
The guards are not the only shooters that Ole Miss has to worry about as the best shooter on the floor for Kentucky this season has been sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. At 6’10, you would expect Wiltjer to be more of a presence inside, but that is far from the case. Out of his 169 field goal attempts, 96 have been from beyond the arc. He will be a matchup problem from Ole Miss whenever he is in the game and if the bigs get into foul trouble, he could be hard to stop.
Even though Kentucky starts with the guards, their interior game is the most dangerous. Led by the top recruit in the 2012 class, Nerlens Noel, UK has a menacing front line. Noel is averaging 10.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg, and is second in the nation with 4.3 bpg. He can alter shots like no other and will be a force to be reckoned with for Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner. Snoop White had a big game against Auburn, leading the team with 17 points, with the majority coming from drives to the basket. Needless to say, Rob Chubb is no Noel.
Fellow freshman Alex Poythress has been another key to the Kentucky front-court this season. Poythress had 20 points 12 rebounds in their last game against LSU, a key to the Cats slipping out with a 75-70 victory. At 6’7, he can play inside and out and will be a tall task for Holloway and White all game. If they can get him into foul trouble, the Rebels’ chances of winning go up astronomically.
Tonight’s game will be a “white-out” where the entire crowd will be asked to wear white. Whether this is testament to Henderson’s frequent self-identification of a “white dude who can shoot” or the career game by White against Auburn, the atmosphere should be electric. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m., but you can bet the Tad Pad will be rocking long before that. Welcome back Ole Miss basketball.