Lexington, KY (SportsNetwork.com) - The SEC schedule begins on Wednesday night for both the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the 14th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena.
Mississippi State impressed during its non-conference slate of games, winning 10 of 13 contests, including its most recent bout at home versus Maryland- Eastern Shore last Thursday, 77-63. The Bulldogs have played just one true road game this season, losing at Utah State back on Nov. 23, 87-68.
Kentucky entered the season as the No. 1 team in the nation, but it has slid in the rankings over the weeks with setbacks to nationally-ranked teams Michigan State (78-74), Baylor (67-62) and North Carolina (82-77). The Wildcats finally stepped up against elite competition in their latest game, however, downing Louisville at home, 73-55, to improve to 8-0 at Rupp Arena.
The Wildcats have a firm handle on the all-time series with the Bulldogs, winning 89-of-109 meetings, including last season's matchup in Lexington, 85-55.
The Bulldogs carried a nine-point lead into the halftime locker room in their latest bout with UMES and their advantage was never in jeopardy from that point forward, as they shot 46.8 percent from the floor and won the rebounding battle, 43-29, in the 14-point victory. Gavin Ware manned the paint with a 21 points and a career-high 16 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the season. Colin Borchert led the team with 22 points, doing so on 7-of-12 from the field and 6-of-6 from the free-throw line, while Fred Thomas (10 points) and I.J. Ready (seven points, six assists) were solid as well.
Mississippi State hasn't exactly been flashy this season on offense, as it scores 70.8 ppg on 46.1 percent from the field, but it has been enough when paired with a strong scoring defense (65.5 ppg). It lives in the green both in terms of rebounding (+1.2) and turnovers (+2.8), but its lackluster free-throw percentage (.640) is certainly worrisome. Craig Sword (14.3 ppg) and Ware (11.2 ppg) both shoot greater than 57 percent from the field, while Ware also ranks third in the SEC in rebounding with 8.9 per contest. Borchert (10.1 ppg) rounds out the double-digit scorers.
The Wildcats delivered Louisville just its second loss of the season their last time out by outshooting the Cardinals from the field, 43.5 percent to 39.7 percent, and using a 13-3 run late in the second half to pull away. The contest wouldn't have been so close had they not struggled so much at the charity stripe (16-of-30). Despite shooting just 5-of-17 from the floor, James Young led the way with 18 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, while Andrew Harrison also scored 18. Julius Randle netted 17, Aaron Harrison finished with 10 and Willie Cauley-Stein logged 10 rebounds and three blocks.
Kentucky has grown accustomed to dominating on both ends of the floor this season, as it shoots 47.8 percent from the field for 80.8 ppg, 14.5 ppg more than it allows, and while its poor turnover margin (-2.2) is oftentimes a detriment, it is able to make up for it by ranking fourth in the nation in rebounding margin (+12.4). Randle (18.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg) has lived up to the billing as one of the nation's top freshmen, while Aaron Harrison (14.7 ppg), Young (13.8 ppg), and Andrew Harrison (11.2 ppg) have also been strong as first-year players. Cauley-Stein, a sophomore and a veteran on this squad, joins Randle in the frontcourt to contribute 8.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg and 4.1 bpg.