Starkville, MS (SportsNetwork.com) - The 18th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats will embark on a two-game road swing starting on Saturday afternoon when they venture to Humphrey Coliseum for a date with the slumping Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Since losing at LSU on Jan. 28 (87-82), Kentucky has claimed back-to-back wins over Missouri (84-79) and most recently at home versus Ole Miss on Tuesday (80-64), to improve to 7-2 in the SEC, good for second place in the league standings behind unbeaten Florida. The Wildcats are a stellar 17-5 overall, but that includes just a 2-3 mark on the road.
Mississippi State started the campaign an impressive 13-5 but has since come crashing back down to earth with a season-high four-game losing streak. The Bulldogs' latest bout ended in a lopsided 72-52 loss at Texas A&M on Wednesday to fall to 13-9 overall and 3-6 in the league, but now they return home to Starkville, where they've won 11 of 13.
The Wildcats made easy work of the Bulldogs in Lexington in the first meeting this season on Jan. 8, 85-63. Kentucky has won seven straight against Mississippi State and has dominated the all-time series, 90-20.
Although Kentucky held just a one-point lead at the half of its most recent matchup, it never relinquished that advantage in the second stanza and pulled away down the stretch for the 16-point victory. It outshot Ole Miss from the field, 51 percent to 38.5 percent, and held a commanding scoring advantage at the free-throw line, 26-8. Willie Cauley-Stein shined in reserve minutes, shooting 7-of-8 from the field for 18 points, while adding 11 rebounds and six blocks. Aaron Harrison netted 16 points, Julius Randle had 12 points and James Young and Alex Poythress scored 10 points apiece.
The Wildcats have grown accustomed to well-rounded efforts on both ends of the floor this season, as they rank second in the SEC in scoring offense (80.0 ppg) and fifth in scoring defense (67.0 ppg), while their field-goal percentage (.476), rebounding margin (+10.4) and blocks per game (6.9) are all tops in the league. Their biggest weakness comes at the free-throw line, where they drain just 67.8 percent of their attempts. Randle (16.0 ppg, 9.9 rpg) has been as advertised in pacing the team's outstanding freshman class. Fellow first-year players Young (14.7 ppg), Aaron Harrison (14.2 ppg) and Andrew Harrison (11.0 ppg, 3.5 apg) are also in the midst of stellar seasons, and Cauley-Stein (7.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg) is an elite defender with 3.2 bpg and 1.2 spg.
Mississippi State hung tough with Texas A&M for much of its latest contest and even claimed a one-point lead early in the second half, but it quickly lost control following a 20-2 run by the Aggies and eventually fell in blowout fashion. It shot a disappointing 37.5 percent from the field on the evening, and its game-high 17 turnovers resulted in 22 Texas A&M points. The low- scoring performance was paced by Fred Thomas and Craig Sword with 10 points apiece, while Colin Borchert and Gavin Ware both had seven points and seven rebounds.
Although the Bulldogs own an above-.500 overall record this season, they still score fewer points (68.1 ppg) than they allow (68.5 ppg), and their lackluster showings from 3-point range (4.8 per game at a 31.6 percent clip) and the foul line (.649) rank among the SEC's worst. Sword leads the team with 13.2 ppg on 48.3 percent shooting, although he has more turnovers (65) than assists (59). Ware is a mainstay in the paint with 10.5 ppg (on 60.1 percent shooting) and 7.9 rpg, while Borchert (10.2 ppg), Roquez Johnson (9.0 ppg) and Thomas (8.5 ppg) have also been solid.