LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky showed signs of becoming a legitimate contender for a national title in an 82-80 win over Auburn last weekend.
“We responded,” Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee said Monday. “It was a tough environment. It was really loud in there and they’e a very experienced team and you know they weren’t going to be rattled. When they put pressure on us down the stretch … I think we showed our resolve and our toughness, playing on the road in that kind of environment. We were able to respond … and that’s a trait of a championship team when you can fo that in that kind of environment.”
The Wildcats (14-3, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) host the second of three straight ranked teams Tuesday night against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs (14-3, 2-2) dropped their first two conference games but have won two straight and are ranked No. 22 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. Kentucky jumped four spots to eighth after defeating the Tigers.
Although it would be easy for the Wildcats to look ahead to Saturday’s showdown against Kansas in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge, Barbee said the Wildcats are focused in the task at hand.
“They’re as experienced and talented as any team in our league,” Barbee said. “They have depth, they have experience and size … they’re not deficient in any one area. This is not a trap game at all. (Mississippi State) has our full attention.”
Kentucky forward PJ Washington agreed. The bigger the hype, the more the Wildcats are into the contest.
“We just need to keep doing what we’re doing and getting stops on the defensive end,” he said. “When we play the bigger games, we want it more. We want to go out and play tougher opponents, I feel like everybody is more excited when we play better teams. We just like playing good people.”
Washington added that Mississippi State is one of the better teams in the SEC.
“It’s always great playing against competitive teams to see where we’re at on both ends of the floor all 40 minutes because you have to go out there and fight,” he said.
Barbee said the Bulldogs are the opposite of Auburn with “two different styles, very contrasting styles” and said the contest will be “night and day” but said Mississippi State will be a “little more deliberate.”
“They’re similar to Auburn, but they have those guys who have been around for 10 years,” Barbee said. “They should have graduated by now or off to the NBA. They’re a talented, veteran team. … they take advantage of their big guys. They have great size and depth in the interior, but the guards get a lot done, too. They play at their pace and they don’t get rushed and they get the shots they want every time down (the floor). We’re going to have to be as good as we were defensively at Auburn.”
Barbee added the Wildcats will have to be more disciplined and patient on the defensive end of the court.
“That’s going to be a challenge with some of the young guys that we play,” Barbee said. “This team is starting to get it through maturity, through experience with the different types of styles and games they’ve seen now. It makes it easier the further we get into the season.”
Kentucky freshman Tyler Herro was honored as the SEC Freshman of the Week Monday. Herro is averaging 15.4 points per game in the past 11 games. Herro has made more than one 3-pointer in eight of the past 11 contests.
Herro made several clutch shots down the stretch in the win over Auburn. Herro made a pair of free throws that gave the Wildcats the lead for good in the closing seconds.
Barbee said Herro hasn’t lacked in confidence since he arrived on campus.
“He’s had (confidence) from Day 1,” Barbee said. “He’s the ultimate confidence-guy. He’s never rattled and never flustered. It doesn’t matter the time, score, situation in the game, level of game, opponent, it does not matter. He doesn’t see that. He’s just out there having fun, playing the game of basketball. That’s why he doesn’t get rattled in those moments and wants to take the big shots.”
Gametracker: Mississippi State at Kentucky, 7 p.m., Tuesday. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.