We learned a lot from No. 1 Kentucky’s 89-86 overtime escape past Ole Miss on Tuesday night, but the most meaningful was this: It's possible to hang with Kentucky for 40 minutes.
In theory, we knew that the Kentucky was beatable. But it hadn't truly been challenged until the Rebels came to Rupp Arena. In the non-conference season, Kentucky had laid waste to then-No. 5 Kansas (by 32) on a neutral floor, to then-No. 6 Texas and to then-No. 21 UNC. Before this game, Kentucky’s closest call had been a 58-50 win at archrival Louisville, and even that score is deceiving. The Wildcats were in control for most of the second half.
It was surprising to see any team take the Wildcats to the wire, let alone Ole Miss. The Rebels are ranked No. 51 on KenPom.com and were given a three percent chance to win this game by the same website. Early on, the game looked like another Kentucky rout. The Wildcats, fresh off nine days rest, opened up a 12-0 lead in the first four minutes. But Ole Miss, led by Stefan Moody’s 25 points, methodically dug itself out of that early deficit and finished the first half up 38-36.
In the second half, the largest lead by either school was five points and the lead changed four times. Ole Miss had the lead, 77-76, and the ball with 37 seconds left in regulation, but Jarvis Summers committed a turnover -- allowing Kentucky to tie the game on a free throw -- and then tried a deep, contested three when a two would have sufficed. Surprisingly, despite Moody suffering from cramps and Kentucky’s significant advantage in depth, Ole Miss continued to keep the game within reach. But two more poorly planned and poorly executed late-game possessions, as well as three missed free throws, left the Rebels three points short of the upset of the season.
The result leaves two important questions. How did the Rebels do it? And will another team take this formula and stir in some late-game magic to upset Kentucky, or will the Wildcats learn from this scare and tear through the rest of the regular season?
The Rebels did three things really well: They didn’t let the game get away from them early, they battled with Kentucky in the paint and they had an exceptional night shooting.
Going into SEC play, many predicted that if Kentucky were to lose a game, it wouldn’t come against a team it was eager to play, but one that it overlooked. The numbers, though, don’t really back up the tired argument that Kentucky doesn’t take every opponent seriously. Sure, the Wildcats had strangely close first halves against Boston University and Providence, but in general their worst performances have come in their toughest games.
Two of those, against Texas and Louisville, exposed Kentucky’s susceptibility to talented frontcourts. Against the Longhorns, the Wildcats had their worst offensive night of the season in terms of adjusted efficiency (94.0); against the Cardinals, they had their second worst (98.3). No team can truly match up with Kentucky down low, but that doesn’t matter. The big men just have to affect the game enough to force it to the perimeter.
Ole Miss became the first team to outscore Kentucky in the paint, putting up 30 points to the Wildcats’ 26. The Rebels also snagged 32 rebounds compared to Kentucky’s 34, despite not having a player taller than 6-foot-9. Imagine how Wisconsin's Bo Ryan or Duke's Mike Krzyzewski will feel when they study this game in preparation for a hypothetical postseason matchup.
And finally, until the end of the game, the Rebels got a little lucky. There’s no shame in that; David needed divine intervention to take down Goliath. The Rebels had been a decent shooting team all season, with a 49.7 effective field goal percentage. But against No. 1, their percentage spiked to 56.8. They shot 49.2 percent from the floor, 52.9 percent from three and 86.4 percent from the free throw line.
And after all that, Kentucky still walked off the court with a win. Where will John Calipari’s squad go from here? After the game, the Wildcats coach intimated this was his team’s most important game so far this season.
“We need these kind of games,” Calipari told ESPN after game. “We need overtime games. We need to get down 10, down 12 and learn. It’s different for us. I don’t have all seniors and juniors. I have freshmen and sophomores, and I’m trying to learn about my team.
“This is all good for this team,” he added in his postgame press conference. “This team needs to keep getting hit in the mouth. I don’t even know how good we can be. I don’t.”
KenPom now gives the Wildcats an 18.1 percent chance of finishing the regular season unbeaten. The Rebels couldn’t pull off the upset, but they reworded college basketball’s most intriguing storyline this season. The question now isn’t if Kentucky can be beaten, but when.