In reality, it has just been a bit over a week since the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team was in action, but it seems like an eternity. Rest assured, the break is almost over as Kentucky starts conference play on Wednesday night versus the Mississippi State Bulldogs (10-3). The WIldcats left the court on a high point after beating Louisville 73-66 and comments from people like Jay Bilas and even Coach Cal would seem to indicate that the Cats are still trending upwards.
The kids are all right. That’s the consensus from the University of Kentucky basketball team’s current coach, its old coach and television’s top college analyst as the 15th-ranked Wildcats prepare to open Southeastern Conference play on Wednesday against Mississippi State.
“I’m not worried about them,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said. “By the end of the year, they’re going to be really good — really good — if they keep building like this.”
John Calipari even gave his players a break from two-a-day workouts Friday, tweeting that they’d earned it.
“I’m proud of the progress,” he wrote. “They’re all learning to deal (with) the grind of becoming a better team and a better player. What I said two years ago and three years ago, if you enjoy the growth of this team, you’re going to enjoy the season a lot more.”
Kentucky’s opponent Wednesday, Mississippi State has an impressive 10-3 record, but don’t be too impressed by that. The Bulldogs have managed to lose three games against what is perceived to be one of the ten worst non conference schedules in the country.
Toughest: at Utah State (Nov. 23), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 19)
Next-toughest: Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
The rest: Prairie View A&M (Nov. 8), Kennesaw State (Nov. 14), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 19), Jackson State (Nov. 27), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 1), TCU (Dec. 5), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 13), Florida A&M (Dec. 17), Maryland Eastern Shore (Jan. 2)
The Bulldogs’ program was in shambles when Rick Ray took over prior to last season — and things got even worse during the year thanks to a long list of suspensions and injuries. It got so bad that Ray had to use a graduate assistant in practice, until he tore his ACL. Somehow, Ray kept his players’ spirits up, and they managed to win a few games (including one against NCAA tournament team Ole Miss) near the end of the season. It was a phenomenal coaching job by Ray, but make no mistake, this program is still in full rebuilding mode, which is why this schedule makes sense. Whoever thought that Florida Gulf Coast would be the No. 1 home opponent on the nonconference schedule of a team from a major conference?
John Calipari took advantage of the off weekend to take in recruit St. Louis star Jayson Tatum’s game at Lexington Catholic. If you recall, Tatum was an October visitor to Lexington and took in BBM as well as a Calipari practice. Tatum and his mother shared these thoughts:
One of the first steps in his recruiting process was an October trip to Lexington, where Cole and Tatum took in a UK practice and Big Blue Madness in the same day.
Cole had an “amazing” time, recalling UK fans waiting outside Rupp Arena who knew who her 15-year-old son was, many wanting pictures, autographs or simply to shake his hand.
“They definitely have one of the best fan bases ever,” she said. “It definitely made him feel real welcome.”
Tatum called it a “great experience” and enjoyed “seeing how crazy the fans are.”
He also liked watching Calipari run practice.
“He challenges his players, even though he has (seven) McDonald’s All-Americans,” Tatum said. “He doesn’t just let them coast through practice. He pushes them hard each play. I want a coach that wants me to get better each and every practice. And wants my teammates to push me and challenge me.”
Cole, who describes herself as Tatum’s biggest fan and his No. 1 critic, also approved of Calipari’s “stern” coaching style. “It was an intense practice, and it was a good thing for us to see,” she said.