Mississippi State and Kentucky kick off their SEC schedules in a matchup set for a 7 pm (8 ET) Wednesday night in Lexington.
The fine folks over at A Sea of Blue took some time out to answer a few questions about Kentucky basketball
1) Two years ago, Kentucky cut down the nets. Last year, the Wildcats were bounced in the first round of the NIT at Robert Morris. This year, Kentucky is ranked in the top-15. What has helped this year's squad be more like the team from two years ago?
This team is much deeper than 2013, and doesn't have the holes that 2013 had. Last season's team had only one player on the whole squad who could get his own shot, and he couldn't shoot unless he was right by the rim. This team has at least 4 players, and arguably 5, who can get their own shot anytime they want it. That kind of offensive firepower makes a difference.
What has hurt Kentucky so far is a lack of commitment to defense, but that's usually the last thing to come around with a group of high-school All-Americans. The sooner they get it, the more likely they are to be in the conversation for a #1 seed come tourney time.
2) Kentucky suffered a few close losses early to Michigan State, Baylor, and North Carolina before knocking Louisville. How big was that win headed into SEC play?
Very big. Huge. Gargantuan. Losing to every high-quality non-conference opponent, in my view, would have required a remarkable run through the SEC even to have a shot at a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. The victory against Louisville at least makes it less difficult than it was, and gives Kentucky a bit of wiggle room.
Not only that, but allowing the hated Birds with Teeth to take a game from us in hallowed Rupp Arena would have been most unpleasant, especially considering that Louisville has beaten us 3 years in a row in football and last year in basketball. It would have been more than a UK fan could sanely bear. Now, things are somewhat better.
3)Julius Randle leads the team in scoring and rebounding. How big of an addition has this freshman been to the team?
Well, we always knew he was going to be huge for us. Besides his brawny 6'9" 250 lb. frame, Randle has freakishly quick feet for a man that size, and a very soft touch around the rim. He's nearly impossible to stop without double-teaming, and Michigan St., known for their defense, couldn't even stop him with triple-teams in the second half of our game with them.
Randle provides the inside scoring punch and relentless rebounding Kentucky needs to beat the very best teams in America. He can't do it by himself, of course, but he doesn't have to. He has plenty of help surrounding him.
4) Besides Randle, who else should Mississippi State fans look for on the court Wednesday night?
The way it's been lately, it's been either one or the other Harrison twin, or James Young. Young is a pure scorer who can do it inside, outside, in transition or from the line. He's also capable of lock-down defense and relentless rebounding, but that seems to be an on and off thing so far.
Andrew Harrison had a big game against the Cardinals, and he's a major problem for most backcourts because he's a 6'6" 210 lb. point guard. They just don't make many of those, and he can really hurt teams by getting into the pain with his size. Against Louisville, he repeatedly hurt the Cardinal frontcourt by getting to the rim and getting fouled.
His brother Aaron is the same size, but 2-guards that size are more common in the SEC than point guards. He has a similar game to Andrew, except he's more of an 3-point scorer who also likes to attack the rim instead of looking to get teammates involved.
And don't forget Willie Cauley-Stein, who had a strong case for the player of the game versus Louisville despite his anemic offensive output. Like Anthony Davis in 2012, WCS affects the game with his shot-blocking length and speed without scoring many points. WCS was able to guard Louisville's Russ Smith, a 5' 11" blur, on the perimeter. That's unheard-of for a 7' player.
5) Kentucky, Missouri and Florida are the only ranked SEC squads at this time. Do you think this team has added pressure as they are becoming the standard bearers (yet again) for the SEC?
Yes, but only in a generic sense. Kentucky understands that they are everybody's Super Bowl, to borrow the formulation of John Caliprari. That means that teams, especially when we go to their gym, have this game circled as a season-maker.
With that said, our teams get used to that very quickly, and it isn't like there is a gym in the SEC where Kentucky fans won't be found in significant numbers. Even Louisville fans constantly lament how much we are able to infiltrate the KFC Yum! Center when we play them there compared to what they are able to muster at Rupp Arena. Kentucky's passionate fans are no myth.
Ultimately, I like LSU, Arkansas, and possibly even Tennessee to have a chance to make an NCAA tournament case, so I think the SEC is rather more interesting and competitive this season than in some previous, and Kentucky cannot and will not take any SEC schools for granted. We are among family now, and every coach in this league knows exactly what to expect from a Calipari-coached team, and they'll have all the tape they need to prepare for the 'Cats.
Fans can watch the game on ESPN3 or on their local SEC TV Affiliate.