Kentucky basketball: Can Wildcats rebound and handle Ole Miss zone defense?

EJ Montgomery of the Kentucky Wildcats . (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
EJ Montgomery of the Kentucky Wildcats . (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

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Kentucky basketball must find a way to beat the zone

Kentucky basketball tips off the final week of the regular season and has just two simple tasks against the Ole Miss Rebels crack their zone defense and just win the game.

It doesn’t matter if the final score is a win by a single point, a buzzer-beater, or a blowout, which is highly doubtful, Kentucky just has to find the fight to win no matter how.

Tonight’s game was supposed to be the season finale, but the South Carolina game that was postponed is now on for Saturday. A win against both would put the Cats back on track after a disastrous loss to Florida who threw a mid-game zone defense at Kentucky that they obviously were not ready for.

Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis is the vinegar to the oil among coaches like John Calipari who seldom use it instead of opting for all man-to-man. It’s been no secret what the Wildcats would see tonight but maybe Saturday’s loss exposed the weakness they needed to correct before tonight.

Kentucky assistant Jai Lucas previewed the Ole Miss game and talked about the defense Florida used.

"“They did something that they really hadn’t done all year. They played a completely different zone than what they had put on film. So, you know, he did a really good job of making it a really untraditional 3-2 (zone). It was more of a matchup, man-to-man 3-2 (zone). So, he did a good job with that, and it just kind of, it made us stagnant. I think being off, like we talked about, and just having that lack of rhythm.”"

But it wasn’t just Kentucky that threw a last-game clunker as the Rebels (13-10, 8-8) stumbled to Vanderbilt 75-70 on Saturday. Ole Miss is just a single game ahead of UK and whoever wins would hold the upper hand in case of a tie heading to the SEC Tournament seedings.

Ole Miss has been sitting in the same place just as Kentucky standings-wise and winning 5 of its past 6 before the Vandy game. They have consistently been in and out as the final teams in Joe Lunardi’s bracket. He currently has them as the first 4 out so they are desperate for wins.

Momentum is key to both teams heading to the SEC tournament in 8 days as Ole Miss is close and Kentucky is desperate and has to win out. A loss to the Rebels may just be a crushing psychological blow.

The Rebels are pretty easy to scout so it essentially comes down to Kentucky just executing and coming to play.

Crack and handle the zone defense

Davis likes to play the zone defense up and down the court. The Rebels execute it well but since few teams face this style very often can struggle to beat it. Vanderbilt plays the same slow speed so that could have been their advantage.

Kentucky point guard Devin Askew had a brutal game against Florida when they switched at the 10-minute mark in the first half and he mustered just one point on offense and couldn’t find players to get the ball to. He has to do a better job or Calipari has to find another ball-handler which they don’t seem to have based on Askew’s 30 minutes per game average.

Lucas talked about the inconsistency at point guard.

"“The biggest thing, being a point guard and having point guards – it’s not just necessarily on our point guard – is just turnovers in general. Some of the turnovers we have, just being a guard, you can say from all of our guards are the ones that kind of drive you a little crazy."

Look for Ole Miss to press in a 1-3-1 zone which will slice about 8 seconds of time to bring it across midcourt and another 6 seconds to recognize what they are then facing. The Rebels can drop into a 2-3 zone as well.

The only time they seem to go man is when the ball goes to the corners and there they trap.

The Cats must take care of the ball where they average almost 16 turnovers a game and Ole Miss relies on its defense to come up with eight steals per game.

Kentucky is a better 3 point shooting team than they are from inside the arc. Davion Mintz, Brandon Boston, Keion Brooks, and Dontaie Allen need to knock down some bombs to keep the defense off guard.

Shular, White make them go but Rodriguez is a pest

Ole Miss’s best player is still Devontae Shuler, who is averaging 16 points a game while connecting on 40 percent from the field. Arizona State transfer Romello White is also a weapon for the Rebels down low, averaging 11 points and six boards per game.

Against Vandy Shuler led the way for Ole Miss with 25 points, three rebounds, and two assists while White finished with 17 points and eight boards.

Lucas knows they must contain Shular.

"“You have to try to kind of crowd the paint so he can’t get downhill. You kind of just want him to take contested shots. You want to make him really inefficient. I think he had 20 points on 20 shots last game. So, you kind of want him to do something like that.”"

Luis Rodriguez flies under the radar but is all over the court disrupting teams. The 6-foot-6 guard/forward averages 7.7 points, six rebounds, has 39 steals for the year to go with 47 assists and 13 blocked shots.

Ole Miss has only connected on 28 percent of their threes this season, while their opponents are knocking down 37 percent

Kentucky should feel the need for speed

The Wildcat offense runs more quiet and efficient when applying the gas. Calipari tried that on Saturday taking early shots in their sets and trying to generate quick offense. That fell apart when the Gators zone barrier came up.

When they slow down they get bogged down.

Neither of these teams lights up the scoreboard so who will take the upper hand.

Ole Miss only allows 63.9 points per game. Vandy put up 71 points and when teams exceed the 70 point threshold that is tough for the Rebels to stop.

During SEC play Kentucky has upped its point production to 72 points per game. That in part by shooting from outside and drawing fouls. Ole Miss averages just 69.2 points a game so edge to Kentucky and they shoot worse t

The Wildcats are shooting 77.6% at the free-throw line in SEC games and have made 333-449 on the year.

The winner will come down to the final play

It appears this game will come down to the final possession to determine a winner. Something Kentucky has not excelled at this year. Who will want the ball is the question with no clear go-to guy except for Mintz.

Isaiah Jackson will need to be on the court and not on the bench in foul trouble to keep the Rebels off the boards.

Kentucky has owned the Rebels holding a 108-13 advantage including winning the last 11 matchups. Ole Miss last won in 2011.

Dan Issel holds the record for Kentucky players dropping 47 points off 20 made baskets in1970.

One basket will decide the fate of both teams heading for the postseason the question is who will throw the dagger?