Kentucky finding stride heading into Starkville|[01/15/08]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Those who thought the University of Kentucky was down and out were treated to a rude awakening on Saturday when the Wildcats defeated then-unbeaten Vanderbilt 79-73 in double overtime.

Under first-year coach Billy Gillispie, Kentucky (7-7, 1-0 SEC) struggled through a 6-7 non-conference schedule. Included among those losses were games against Gardner-Webb, San Diego, Alabama-Birmingham and Houston.

Tonight on ESPN, the Wildcats square off against a Mississippi State club that will be without starting guard Ben Hansbrough and likely senior Charles Rhodes. Hansbrough fractured a bone in his left hand during Saturday’s 60-49 win over Georgia, MSU coach Rick Stansbury said Monday morning. Rhodes has been suffering through an ankle injury and saw limited time against Georgia. Stansbury did not rule out Rhodes for tonight, but said he has been ginger in practice.

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“Kentucky is coming off a huge win over Vanderbilt on Saturday and are playing exceptionally well,” said Stansbury, whose team sits atop the SEC West standings at 2-0. “They are playing their best basketball in the new season. If you don’t bring your best against Kentucky, you will get beat most nights.”

Especially when playing with a limited bench.

Hansbrough averages almost 10 points and three assists per game, and is the Bulldogs’ top 3-point shooter. Rhodes, the only senior starter on the roster, is second on the team with 15 points per game although he has only seen action in 13 games this season.

“They have held their last three opponents under 30 percent (shooting), their conference field goal defense percent is 22, and you just don’t see that kind of numbers no matter who you play,” Gillispie said. “Fantastic offensively, a team that plays to their personnel effectively and they are going to be a huge challenge for us.”

This will be the 103rd meeting between the two schools, with Kentucky holding a commanding 84-18 lead, including a 16-8 record in Humphrey Coliseum.

The red-hot Bulldogs have won six straight games and haven’t lost since Dec. 15. Jarvis Varnado leads the SEC and is third nationally in blocked shots with 83.

“Every time you go up he is going to try to block (shots),” Gillispie said. “He is a good athlete who has exceptionally good timing and does a good job. He is something special defensively.”

Ole Miss hosts defending champions

The defending national champion Florida Gators will invade Oxford on Wednesday night for a regionally televised game beginning at 7. The game can be seen locally on WJTV-12.

It will be the Rebels’ third SEC game after falling by two at Tennessee and beating LSU 74-71 on Saturday afternoon.

The Gators (15-2, 2-0) look much different than the previous two years when a core group led the team to back-to-back national championships. The Gators have two juniors and no seniors. Two of the top three scorers are freshman and the other is a sophomore. Leading scorer Nick Calathes, a freshman, averages 15 points and six rebounds per game.

“He is a tremendous player,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “He has had as big an impact for Florida as any freshman has had for their team this year. He plays like a seasoned veteran.”

Kennedy could easily have been talking about his own super freshman, guard Chris Warren. The Orlando native leads the team with 19.5 points per game. He is one of five Ole Miss players with Florida ties.

“I know the kids from down there will be very excited,” Kennedy said. “There are a lot of good players and there are always good athletes.”

Despite the loss of talent, Kennedy believes that this Florida team will provide similar challenges to last year’s club.

“It’s going to be a challenge because they are playing so well right now,” said Kennedy of the Gators, who have lost to Florida State and Ohio State this season. “They have a different cast of characters, but they are a very talented group.”