Kentucky responded well to its first defeat of the season by beating its closest pursuer in the SEC East. Star freshman John Wall’s “frustrated” response to criticism turned into “a teaching point.”
Wall and coach John Calipari will try to put the guard’s outburst behind them Tuesday night when the fourth-ranked Wildcats attempt to continue their dominance of No. 25 Mississippi.
The Wildcats (20-1, 5-1 SEC) beat then-No. 21 Vanderbilt 85-72 on Saturday, four days after falling 68-62 at South Carolina to end their 19-game season-opening winning streak. The defeat also dropped Kentucky out of the No. 1 spot in the AP poll, but the win over the Commodores returned the Wildcats to the top of the SEC East.
Despite Saturday’s win, Wall turned in his worst shooting performance of the season, making 4 of 12 shots and also tying a season high with seven turnovers. In the aftermath, he said he tries to ignore criticism from Calipari.
“I just try not to listen to him and go out and play basketball and try and help my team win,” Wall said. “The last two weeks I haven’t been playing well, I haven’t been having fun. I’ve kind of been frustrated with everything. I’ve got to figure it out.”
Two days later Wall quickly backpedaled, saying he met with Calipari and “everything is OK.”
“When you are frustrated you say things you don’t mean,” said Wall, who ranks fifth in the SEC with 16.9 points per game. “We sat down and talked about it and I realized after I watched the film that I did play bad. I had a lot of turnovers and didn’t lead the team like I was supposed to.”
Calipari called Wall’s outburst “a teaching point” and told him that former college stars Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans - each of whom played one season for Calipari at Memphis before bolting to the NBA - struggled at some point during their careers.
“A lot has been thrown at him, (the) league has gotten harder and there aren’t as many easy plays,” Calipari said. “Now, there is a frustration level of, ‘Now it’s time to step up, you’re the marked man, and they’re coming at you.’”
The Wildcats showed they can overcome Wall’s struggles, as fellow freshman DeMarcus Cousins had 21 points and 10 rebounds Saturday.
The 6-foot-11 Cousins is averaging 20.0 points and 11.8 boards over the last four games, and is second in the conference with 9.7 rebounds per game on the season. His scoring average of 16.2 is second to Wall on the team.
“Part of the reason DeMarcus is having a field day, is they are all concerned about John Wall,” Calipari said. “Now, it opens up the whole court, you throw it in to him and it’s one-on-one. He’s too big.”
Cousins may be in for another big game Tuesday as Mississippi’s 6-foot-8 center Reggie Buckner is expected to miss a second consecutive game with an ankle injury. Cousins is taller than any member of the Rebels (16-5, 4-3), and Kentucky has enjoyed more success against them than any other league opponent, winning 96 of 108 meetings.
The Wildcats also hold a 48-2 advantage at Lexington, taking the last five matchups there since falling 73-64 to then-No. 18 Ole Miss on Feb. 14, 1998.
They saw their nine-game winning streak in the overall series end in the lone regular-season meeting last season, losing 85-80 at Mississippi on Jan. 27. However, Kentucky beat the Rebels 71-58 in the opening round of the conference tournament March 12.
Ole Miss struggled without Buckner on Sunday, getting outrebounded 45-32 to fall 80-73 to Arkansas at home.
The Rebels will need a better defensive performance after allowing the Razorbacks to shoot 48.1 percent from the field.
“We’ve got to come up with some kind of defensive scheme for Kentucky,” said forward Murphy Holloway, who had 19 points and 17 rebounds Sunday.
Chris Warren, who had 17 points against Arkansas, is averaging a team-high 16.7 points. The junior guard missed both meetings with Kentucky last season due to injury.