LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – Mississippi State wants to splash in the adult pool of Southeastern Conference basketball. They dumped their head coach (Rick Ray) last spring to hire former UCLA coach Ben Howland, a Final Four veteran, to prove it.

The Bulldogs have a Top Five recruiting class coming next season. They weren't supposed to be ready for the deep end yet, but apparently Howland’s team ignored that memo.

Kentucky (13-3, 3-1) discovered that Tuesday night in Rupp Arena, huffing and puffing past the Bulldogs, 80-74. This is a team that UMKC beat by 5 and Miami beat by 26.

"We could have easily lost the game," UK coach John Calipari said. "I'm not upset at anybody. I'm upset for them."

He's right. The three primary computer rankings agreed after the game. 

Kentucky lost four spots in Ken Pomeroy's formula, sliding from 18th to 22nd, behind Indiana, which is ranked 21. UK is 26th in Jeff Sagarin's predictor rankings, down two from Tuesday. UK is 10th in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), another two-spot drop.

The Wildcats trailed 5-0 before Jamal Murray buried a trio of three-point shots in the first five minutes against the Bulldogs’ 2-3 zone. The Wildcats were ahead by 20 with 14 minutes left in the second half, but lost focus (or interest, especially defensively) after that, allowing the visitors to cut the lead to 74-71.

The visitors made nearly 52.9 percent of their shots, the highest percentage any UK opponent has posted since Wichita State shot 55.1 in the 2014 NCAA Tournament 58 games ago.

"Obviously Kentucky's not the team they were a year ago," Howland said. "But they're still the best team (in the SEC) and the team to beat."

It wasn’t Kentucky’s greatest performance but it didn’t have to be.

Mississippi State has not beaten a team in the Top 200 in Ken Pomeroy’s computer rankings all season. That’s not easy for a program from a Power 5 conference to do.

For the Wildcats, the victory was a Perimeter Party. Guards Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe and Murray combined for 57 points.

"We have to figure out that if we don't have a post presence, how do we win?" Calipari said.


MIGHTY MURRAY: There was a time when some people were convinced that Malik Newman, not Jamal Murray, would be Kentucky’s starting two-guard this season.

Then Newman committed to MSU, his home state school and John Calipari fetched Murray from Canada. No reason for consternation. He got the right guy.

Murray waited less than two minutes before making a three-point shot for his 16th consecutive game, a school record for a freshman. He hit another. And another.

He finished with 22, leading the Wildcats in scoring for the fifth time. Murray made 5 of 11 shots from distance. Ulis finished with 21, making half of his 14 field goal attempts. Newman scored 14, hitting half of his four shots from distance.

"The two guys that hurt us the most were their two best players, Ulis and Murray," Howland said.

CHAIRMEN OF THE BOARDS: The SEC weekly statistical package compares the 14 league teams in 21 categories. John Calipari’s team ranks first in two areas – field goal percentage and offensive rebounding percentage.

The Wildcats began the game shooting 47.3 and grabbing better than 40 percent of its missed shots on the offensive glass.

They did well in both categories again, shooting nearly 51 percent while grabbing 39.2 percent of their misses. The Wildcats outrebounded MSU by 13, allowing only three offensive boards. The problem was that Mississippi State matched the Wildcats with 30 points in the paint.

DISCO BRISCOE : For a guy who can’t trust his three-point shot or his stroke at the foul line, Isaiah Briscoe still creates ways to score.

Briscoe, a freshman, backed up his 12-point, 5-rebound performance against Alabama with another solid game. He contributed 14 points – and UK needed all of them on a night when Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress combined for two field goals, missing four of six shots. Lee fouled out for the fourth time this season.

When Calipari saw that Poythress and Lee were not going to bring muscle to the middle, he parked Briscoe in the middle of the MSU zone. 

"I put him under the basket because I couldn't get our big guys to score down here," Calipari said.

"Briscoe hurt us," Calipari said. "On his penetration. He's a skilled passer. He was their best playmaker."

ACHILLES HEEL: Another number that jumps off the Wildcats season statistics is their ability to make free throws. Their 65 percent success rate ranks 292nd in the nation as well as 12th in the SEC.

Kentucky has been outscored at the foul line in all three defeats – by seven at UCLA, by five against Ohio State and by seven at LSU.

Through 15 games, only one of Calipari’s seven UK teams has been worse at the line – the 2013 NIT team.

Kentucky was better at the line Tuesday, shooting 75 percent while outscoring the visitors, 15-14. Ulis excelled, making all five of his foul shots while Murray made three of four.

SKAL SNAPSHOT: Freshman forward Skal Labissiere did not start for the fifth consecutive game. He replaced Alex Poythress six minutes into the game.

Labissiere wasn’t great but he showed slight improvement, contributing 5 points and 4 rebounds in 14 minutes. He made more field goals (two) than either Lee or Poythress, who had one each.

"We've just got to bring him along," Calipari said. "It's got to be that way until he breaks through."

STILL NO DOMINIQUE: An ankle injured kept Dominique Hawkins on the bench for the third consecutive game. Hawkins played three minutes against Ole Miss on Jan. 2 before suffering the injury. He watched the game in sweats. Calipari mentioned Hawkins during his opening statement after the game.

"We need Dom back, badly," Calipari said. "We're playing some guys that don't deserve to be in there, and then you end up playing them a lot of minutes. See, people see a shot made and think, well, the guy's OK. But when you watch the tape, it's just like, 'Oh my God, you score six and you give up 12."

HELP IS ON THE WAY: Mississippi State’s recruiting class is ranked sixth or better nationally by the four major services – Rivals, Scout, ESPN and 247 Sports. It features six four-star recruits, led by forward Mario Kegler. He picked the Bulldogs over Maryland, Indiana, Baylor and Arizona State.

Howland has tried to build a Kentucky connection. The 2016 class includes former Owensboro Apollo star Eli Wright, who transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for his senior season.

Another Owensboro product, Aric Holman, a freshman forward, has averaged 1.0 points and 1.5 rebounds in four games after missing the first five weeks with a knee injury. Holman played one minute but did not score.

UP NEXT: It’s on the road again for the Wildcats, two more games away from home before they return to Rupp Arena on Jan. 23 to play Vanderbilt. The Commodores were expected to be one of the top four teams in the league but they lost their first three league games.

There is a Saturday trip to Auburn (7-7, 1-2) to play Bruce Pearl and the Tigers and then a visit to Fayetteville next week for a game with sagging Arkansas (8-7, 2-1), where fans are wondering if the Mike Anderson Era will ever exceed the Stan Heath or John Pelphrey eras.

"The next two are on the road?" Calipari said to the Rupp Arena crowd during his post-game radio show. "Gosh."

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