Defending 3-point line, rebounding among Kentucky's keys against Ole Miss

On3 imageby:Zack Geoghegan02/12/24

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Kentucky will enter Rupp Arena as a desperate team on Tuesday night. After losing to Gonzaga on Saturday, the Wildcats have now dropped three straight games at Rupp for the first time in the history of the famous building. Losing a fourth — which would also mark five losses in the last seven games — could officially send this season into a full-on tailspin.

Ole Miss (18-5; 5-5 SEC) will come to Lexington with the plan to make that a reality. The Rebels are also in need of a win, having dropped its last two outings against No. 13 Auburn and No. 11 South Carolina. Ole Miss hasn’t played since last Tuesday, so Chris Beard’s squad will have enjoyed a full week of preparation for the Wildcats.

Ahead of Tuesday night’s intraconference showdown, Kentucky associate coach Orlando Antigua spoke with reporters on Monday morning to preview what’s in store.

“Ole Miss is like a lot of SEC teams,” Antigua explained. “They’re experienced, they’re good. They like to get out in transition, they shoot the ball extremely well, they cause some matchup difficulties because they’ll play a smaller lineup at times. They got big wings, so it’s gonna be a good challenge for us.”

Like Kentucky (1st in all of college basketball at 41 percent), the Rebels are among the nation’s top three-point shooting teams. Ole Miss shoots 38.7 percent from long range, good enough for 10th in the country, per KenPom. They squeeze off just 19.7 attempts per game though, which ranks among the lower half in all of college hoops, but the efficiency is what stands out — five of the Rebels’ top rotational players shoot 36 percent or better from deep.

Kentucky actually did a great job of defending the long ball during the loss to Gonzaga on Saturday. The Bulldogs shot just 4-18 (22.2 percent) from distance, their third-fewest makes in a game this season. It was what happened inside the arc that hurt the ‘Cats in the end.

“I think one of the things we were trying to do against Gonzaga is to defend the three-point line,” Antigua added. “We know that teams have come in and shot the ball well against us, we’ve got to do a good job of defending the three-point line and then securing the defensive rebounds to finish off those possessions. Thought we did that against Gonzaga. We wanted to cut half of their makes from the three-point line, we just didn’t finish off with the rebounding that we needed to.”

Luckily for Kentucky, Ole Miss isn’t nearly as effective at attacking the offensive glass as Gonzaga is. Finishing off possessions with defensive rebounds should be an easier task on Tuesday. The Zags rank among the top 40 in the country in offensive rebounding and grabbed 18 against UK the other day. Ole Miss ranks among the nation’s bottom 10 in the same category.

Which sounds odd considering Ole Miss trots out a pair of seven-footers. 7-foot-5 Jamarion Sharp (a Western Kentucky transfer) and 7-foot Moussa Cisse are impactful rebounders, but neither plays more than 19 minutes per outing against SEC opponents. Coach Beard is leaning more toward a small-ball approach this season with a slew of talented guards and wings. His top five rotational pieces range from 5-foot-11 to 6-foot-8, then followed by Cisse and Sharp.

“Matt Murrell is obviously a guy that’s been in this league and has been one of the top offensive players in the league for years,” Antigua said. “(Allen) Flanigan as a grad now is also a matchup problem. Big guard that can play multiple positions. (Jaemyn) Brakefield has been there forever as well. He’s another guy that poses challenges. Point guard, Juju (Jaylen) Murray, we got a chance to play against him a few years ago when he was at Saint Peter’s.”

Chris Beard teams are typically known for their defense. During his five seasons at Texas Tech (2016-21), his teams finished, in order, 56th, 4th, 1st, 9th, and 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. During his only full season at Texas in 2021-22, the Longhorns ranked 14th. But in his first year at Ole Miss, offense has been the name of the game.

The Rebels score at an efficient clip from beyond the arc and at the free-throw line, don’t turn the ball over, and generate a significant amount of points off assists. On the other end, however, Ole Miss ranks 132nd in the county in adjusted defensive efficiency. Kentucky should have no problem posting 90-plus points for the 14th time this season. But can the ‘Cats slow down Ole Miss enough on offense to come out with a much-needed win?

“They’ve got a good group, a good team,” Antigua added. “Obviously, by their record, it shows… It’s gonna be a great challenge for us and another opportunity for us to go out there and play a good team and try to get a win against a good team.”

Tipoff is set for Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m. EST on ESPN.

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2024-03-02