STARKVILLE, Miss. — At the Southeastern Conference Media Day in October, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury thought Kentucky would be good and certainly capable of winning the SEC title despite losing key players off the 2011 Final Four team
What Stansbury didn’t know then was just how good Kentucky would be and that the Wildcats would be far better than anticipated.
“No question about that. I¿don’t think anybody anticipated them being this good. Nobody. I don’t think anybody anticipated (Anthony) Davis being like he is. Nobody,” Stansbury said Tuesday.
The top-ranked Wildcats overcame a 13-point halftime deficit and end the game with a 20-4 run to beat Mississippi State 73-64 and convince Stansbury that this team is even better than UK’s potent 1996 national championship team. Stansbury was an assistant coach at Mississippi State then when the Bulldogs beat UK¿in the SEC Tournament and lost to the Cats at the Final Four.
“They have something around that rim (Davis) that they did not have in 1996. And not just around the rim. He is so good away from that basket,” Stansbury said. “Some big guys, or actually most big guys, are only good blocking shots at the rim but he is so good away from the basket being able to help on them ball screens and all that kind of stuff. He is so quick offensively running that floor.”
But he says there is more to Kentucky than Davis, the nation’s leading shot blocker.
“They have tough guys in (Michael) Kidd-Gilchrist and Darius Miller and (Terrence) Jones. He (Kentucky coach John Calipari) has done a great job getting those guys to really buy in defensively, and Jones gives them that X factor in everything you do. When’s he on, they are really tough,” Stansbury said. “(Marquis) Teague is good and has gotten better as the year has gone on. He’s really quick on defense and has got better offensively. Everything has gotten better for him. Everything.”
Still, Kentucky’s 1995-96 championship team had Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson and Mark Pope — who all played in the NBA — along with point guard Anthony Epps. Current NBA player Nazr Mohammed was on the team, but played on a special junior varsity team created by then coach Rick Pitino for him and Cameron Mills. Jeff Sheppard, another future NBA player, redshirted that season.
“But you haven’t named one guy that is a difference maker like Davis is out there. None of those guys could do what Davis does and he sets that tone for everything they do. Whether they can win a national championship like that team, we are about to find out,” Stansbury said.
He also thinks the current Cats have one other edge — defense. His team did torch UK¿for 41 first-half points, but then managed just 23 the second half.
“They play man-to-man and get up in you and they don’t give many 3’s because they fight over those screens and they protect that rim,” Stansbury said. “They don’t have many long bad stretches because of that defense.”
Two years ago the Wildcats had two of the nation’s best players — John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins — along with three other first-round draft picks — Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton. However, that team was eliminated by West Virginia’s zone defense in the Elite Eight.
Stansbury says there is “no question” Kentucky’s zone offense is much better and more efficient this season.
“Look at their stats and only one guy in the starting lineup that really shoots it is (Doron) Lamb, but I¿am telling you that they are hard to zone. Real hard because of the movement of Jones and Davis,” Stansbury said. “Then they can bring in Miller, who gives them two great shooters and they add in (Kyle) Wiltjer and they have three good shooters.
“But if you only have Lamb and Miller in there, guys like Jones and Davis are so good around that rim and can move into soft spots and hide Gilchrist in that high post and put him where he can be effective a bunch ... they are just hard to zone. They do not beat you shooting the ball consistently. They beat you dunking around that rim. Kentucky dunks on everybody in that zone and we took that away from them. You just have to pick your poison. For the first half, we did about as good a job as we could have done.
“You have to pick your poison. The problem is they don’t shoot a lot of 3’s in that zone because they are around that rim so much because you don’t have a body on them. The poison I would pick is to try and keep them out of that lane some. They killed Vanderbilt with those screens and driving in there. They have made more free throws than opponents have attempted in SEC play. That’s a huge stat. Choose your poison because they can drive the lane and shoot foul shots. It’s a tough decision. Jump shots and 3-point shots they are not as good, but you can not take it all away from them. They are too good and that’s what got us the second half.”
Stansbury says the whole SEC does benefit from Kentucky’s dominance — or should.
“In the past when Kentucky was not very good, they said the league was not very good. I have always said for our league to be good,¿Kentucky has to be good,” Stansbury said. “It starts with Kentucky. Always has and always will until someone can do it consistently like Kentucky. Kentucky is still what you measure everyone by. They are the team you are measured by because the perception is that Kentucky is supposed to be the best team. When they are, it brings attention to your league. And this year they are the best for a lot of reasons.”