Hustle UK’s Path to Overcoming MSU Size, Home Crowd
It’s not a potential disadvantage Matthew Mitchell has ever ignored.
As talented, athletic and long as his Kentucky team is, the Wildcats are not overwhelming when it comes to size inside. That stands in contrast to certain teams on UK’s schedule, Mississippi State – the Cats’ next opponent – foremost among them.
So, since he’s always been aware of the challenges that such a matchup would pose, Mitchell already knows what it will take to overcome them.
“We’ve got to hustle,” Mitchell said. “When you have a deficiency in size, you’ve got to try to make up for it in different ways and hustle is that first spot. Then, we fortunately have been able to show some versatility this year, so we’ve got to try to play to our strengths and see if we can minimize the damage that their size can create. So, it’s got to be a team effort for us, we’ve got to really hustle.”
The good news for the No. 16 Cats (14-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) as they prepare for a trip to Starkville, Mississippi, to face the No. 7 Bulldogs (13-1, 1-0) Sunday at 5 p.m. is hustle has never been an issue for them. As UK has resurrected the “40 minutes of dread” defense that first established the program on the national stage, the Cats have fully embraced the approach it takes to play that way.
“This is brand new for this particular team, so I just really appreciate how much they’ve hustled and tried,” Mitchell said. “That doesn’t always mean that it’s perfect, and that is why we keep practicing and trying to get better every day. But, you’ve got to stick to your fundamentals and you’ve got to make a full commitment to this style of play if you want to have any success. So, huge challenge to go on the road against the favorite in the conference to win. But, we’ve got to go turn it loose and play our style of basketball.”
Mississippi State’s label as SEC favorite is well earned. The defending conference champions have appeared in back-to-back national championship games and are led by 6-foot-7 star senior Teaira McCowan, averaging 16.6 points and 13.2 rebounds per game. With her in the middle, Mississippi State is outrebounding its opponents by 17.6 per game.
“Mississippi State is off to a great start with their season and they had a big win versus Arkansas (Thursday) night,” Mitchell said. “… But, we’ve been working hard on our defense and trying to be disruptive. That’s what we need to try to do and we need to try to push the tempo. I know Mississippi State likes that kind of a game, so we need to really dial in and do a good job in our preparation for the game on Sunday.”
Mitchell is right. Though the Bulldogs are big, they apply similar pressure to UK’s. Mississippi State forces 20.9 turnovers per game, just behind UK’s average of 24.2.
“Listen, I’ll tell you, our press is a work in progress,” Mitchell said. “We really, this year, tried to reestablish a press mentality. So, we’re certainly not flawless in that from that standpoint, but yeah, I think that we’re going to try to play with a Kentucky mentality and that is pressure, and that’s something Mississippi State has done real well with this year, too. So, we’ll see what happens there.”
Mississippi State has done particularly well on its home floor, where the Bulldogs are a perfect 7-0. UK, meanwhile, has lost its only true road game, at Louisville.
“I think it’s a real similar challenge as it was with Louisville, being one of the top teams in the country,” Mitchell said. “They had a very energetic crowd that day and I’m sure the same will happen this weekend. So, it’s a tough atmosphere. It’s a tough place to play and you have to credit Mississippi State for creating a great home court atmosphere, it’ll be a big challenge.”
Though UK might have lost its only previous road game, the Cats acquitted themselves nicely in so doing. Down 15 entering the fourth quarter, Kentucky charged back and nearly pulled off the upset.
“I’m glad that we have had something similar to that that we can talk about, because that Louisville game really got away from us in a short period of time,” Mitchell said. “They did some damage and when we finally got the focus on playing good basketball from our standpoint, we were able to settle in and make some plays. So, that’s what we’ll be looking for.”