Kentucky insists it hasn’t lost confidence despite its recent struggles. A glance at its upcoming schedule shows plenty of reason for optimism.
The 22nd-ranked Wildcats are undefeated at home, where they will play four of their final six regular-season games beginning with Tuesday night’s matchup against Mississippi State.
Kentucky (17-7, 5-5 SEC) has dropped three of four, with all three losses coming on the road by a combined eight points. The Wildcats faded late Saturday in an 81-78 defeat at then-No. 23 Vanderbilt.
The Wildcats led by two with 5:39 to go, but committed three costly turnovers as the Commodores went on an 11-3 run to take control. Kentucky fell to 1-5 in conference road games.
“If we had played a couple stops on defense we would have been fine,” senior forward Josh Harrellson said.
While challenging two-loss Florida for the SEC East lead may be a stretch, the Wildcats can focus on finishing in the top two in the division, which would earn them a bye in the first round of the conference tournament. They currently trail Vanderbilt and Georgia by one game for second place.
For all the troubles on the road, Kentucky is 11-0 in Lexington overall and has won its four conference home games by an average of 20 points.
“At the end of the day, you have to be able to nip a couple of those (road losses) and we didn’t,” coach John Calipari said. “But, you just move on. I mean, what are you going to do? I like my team. I believe in the team. … We have to do some things different.”
Calipari’s Wildcats could be opening the season’s home stretch without starting guard Darius Miller, who played 18 minutes Saturday before leaving with a groin injury. He’s averaging 9.7 points and 4.8 rebounds.
Mississippi State (13-11, 5-5) has been just as inconsistent as it continues to deal with off-court issues.
After winning three of four, the Bulldogs failed to protect a 19-point second-half lead Saturday at Auburn, giving up 17 unanswered points en route to a 65-62 loss.
“We played so well for about 35 minutes,” coach Rick Stansbury said. “In the last five minutes, we had too many unforced turnovers. You can’t turn the ball over that many times on the road and expect to win the game.”
Dee Bost scored 22 points while leading scorer Raven Johnson, who came in averaging 17.7, was held to three in 19 minutes off the bench.
Johnson returned to action following a two-game suspension for sending “inappropriate tweets” as well as violating a class attendance policy. Stansbury wasn’t sure if Johnson would be back in the starting lineup Tuesday.
Johnson’s issues are merely the latest drama for Mississippi State, which dealt earlier this season with Renardo Sidney’s fight in the stands with then-teammate Elgin Bailey.
Kentucky defeated Mississippi State twice last season - including in the conference tournament - but both contests went to overtime. The last six games in the series have been decided by a total of 27 points.
Mississippi State is 2-4 on the road.