Undefeated in SEC play and ranked for the first time in nearly 15 months, Kentucky is thriving again.
The No. 24 Wildcats look to maintain their hold on first place in the conference Tuesday when they visit injury-riddled Mississippi - a team they have defeated nine consecutive times.
Led by the scoring tandem of Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson accompanied by a stifling defense, Kentucky (16-4, 5-0) entered the rankings this week for the first time since Oct. 29, 2007. The Wildcats have also won their first five conference games since opening 10-0 in SEC play in 2004-05.
Still, Kentucky coach Billi Gillispie isn’t satisfied with those achievements.
“We appreciate any attention we get, but we understand we have a lot of improvement to make,” Gillispie said.
Gillispie’s team has won 10 of its last 11 overall, with Meeks the biggest reason why. The junior guard - whose 26.1 scoring average leads the SEC and ranks third in the nation - has exceeded 20 points in seven straight games, including a 54-point effort Jan. 13 in a 90-72 victory at then-No. 24 Tennessee.
Meeks accounted for nearly half of the Wildcats’ points Saturday at Alabama, scoring 27 in Kentucky’s 61-51 victory. Perry Stevenson added 16 points and 12 rebounds and DeAndre Liggins had 11 points off the bench, but the Wildcats turned the ball over 23 times to continue an alarming trend.
Kentucky is averaging 18.4 turnovers per game on the season.
“Those kinds of mistakes have to be stopped,” Gillispie said. “We talk about it, but we don’t harp on it. We just try to get better. But it still is January and our teams usually start playing better this time of year and we have too.”
Starting forward Ramon Harris fainted at halftime of Saturday’s game and was taken to a Tuscaloosa hospital. The junior - averaging 6.0 points per game - was treated and released that night, and was cleared to play in this contest after undergoing extensive tests Monday.
Kentucky has defeated Ole Miss (10-9, 1-4) nine straight times, continuing its long-running dominance of the Rebels. The Wildcats lead the all-time series 95-11.
Beset by injuries, Mississippi is looking to avoid its first four-game losing streak since dropping six in a row to end the 2005-06 season.
In the first two weeks of this season, the Rebels lost a pair of guards - sophomore Trevor Gaskins and junior Eniel Polynice - to knee injuries. Chris Warren, the team’s leading scorer last season as a freshman, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Dec. 18 against Louisville.
In their places, junior guard David Huertas has emerged. Huertas tied a season high with 27 points in Saturday’s 82-71 loss at South Carolina, and is averaging 19.5 points on the season - third-best among SEC players.
The Rebels have split their last six games against Top 25 opponents, but haven’t beaten a ranked Wildcats team since Feb. 14, 1998.