But here the Wildcats are, 13-6 overall and 4-2 in league games. Even still, Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy isn’t taking Kentucky lightly. Not by a long shot.
Because at the end of the day, Kentucky, he says, is Kentucky. Ole Miss hosts the Wildcats tonight at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
“We’re looking forward to having an opportunity to host what is inarguably the most storied program in college basketball, the defending national champion, Kentucky,” he said. “Albeit on a quick turn, our guys are excited about the opportunity.”
Ole Miss, winners of nine straight games and ranked No. 16 in the latest USA Today/Coaches’ poll, is fresh off a 63-61 win at Auburn on Saturday. The Rebels sit atop the SEC standings with a 17-2 overall record and 6-0 mark in the SEC - the best start for Ole Miss in school history.
They’re a three-point favorite over the Wildcats, who beat LSU, 75-70, on Saturday to cap a 1-1 week. Kentucky lost at Alabama on Wednesday. The Wildcats are just 2-3 on the road this season.
“We really haven’t done anything,” Kennedy said. “I appreciate the fact that our guys are finding ways and we’re getting better. Obviously, with that comes more attention being paid to your team. For us, it’s just about trying to take advantage of opportunities.
“It’s the reason we’ve been on the outside looking in far more times than I’d like to remember. We just have not taken advantage of the opportunities that this league presents. Tuesday night, you’ve got Kentucky in your building. Our guys will be excited about that. Hopefully, we play well.”
USA TODAY images
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin leads Kentucky with 14.6 points per game. He’s dished out a team-best 62 assists. Fellow freshman Nerlens Noel leads the Wildcats in rebounds with 8.4 per game, and ranks first in the SEC in blocks with 4.4 per game.
“An incredible, incredible talent at the basket,” Kennedy said of Noel. “He’s averaging over six blocks per game in league play. That is mind-boggling. Obviously, last year they had a very, very special player at the basket in Anthony Davis. Anthony Davis was probably a little bit bigger, but I’m not sure even he was the presence that Noel is at the basket defensively.
“Completely changes the game, playing with a lot of confidence. You can see, a lot like Davis last year, as the season is getting further along, the kid is growing by leaps and bounds offensively, as well.”
Noel presents a challenge for an Ole Miss front court featuring veterans Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway.
With his 11 rebounds at Auburn, Holloway, the SEC’s active career leader in rebounds and double-doubles, continues to inch towards the top of the Ole Miss rebound list with 941 career rebounds, four shy of tying the school record.
Buckner ranks second in the SEC and 17th in the nation in blocks at 2.8 per game. He holds the school record in blocked shots with 281, good for seventh in SEC history. He’s the leader among active league players in career blocks.
“I’ve got two seniors who’ve been through this,” Kennedy said. “From DeMarcus Cousins to Anthony Davis to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky just seems to always have a guy in there that’s very, very good. Nerlens Noel, defensively, is as good as there is in college basketball.
“Our guys every day in practice probably go against the second-best shot-blocker in the SEC in Reginald Buckner. Our guys, I know, will be excited about the challenge Noel brings.”
In the last meeting between the teams in February of 2012, Ole Miss suffered a 77-62 loss in Rupp Arena. Kentucky was No. 1 overall, en route to a national-championship run in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats lead the series 99-13.
USA TODAY images
Kentucky head coach John Calipari said not much has changed since the last time his team faced Ole Miss, other than the Rebels are “older” and “don’t seem to get rattled.”
“A bunch of the games I watched, even if the other team comes at them and gets leads, they don’t get rattled. And if they get you down, they try to keep you down,” he said. “And then (Ole Miss guard Marshall) Henderson gives them a different flavor that he can go on a roll and whatever the score of the game, he can make three straight shots.
“They were good last year. We were really good, they were really good. We didn’t get away from them until one stretch in the second half. Other than that four-minute stretch, it was an even game last year. They’re a veteran team, everybody’s back, a couple of additions that make them better. I think Andy’s doing a great job of coaching.”