NEW ORLEANS — It’s only right that the SEC’s two best basketball teams battle today in the conference’s tournament championship. But oh what a difference there is between team No. 1 and team No. 2.
Team numero uno is also the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, the heavyweight champion in denim uniforms — Kentucky.
The challenger in today’s battle royal at the Louisiana Superdome is none other than the league’s other nationally-ranked team, No. 25 Mississippi State.
I’m not a betting man and we don’t run the point spreads in this newspaper, but you can stake the farm that the Bulldogs will walk into his Cons Blue-crazy arena today as a two-touchdown underdog. In their only other clash this season, Kentucky beat the Bulldogs by 18, 74-56, in Starkville.
I know what many Kentucky fans are thinking: Why bother to play the game? Just hand the trophy to UK and let State go home to prepare for next week’s NCAA Tournament. Tons of the Big Blue faithful didn’t even hang around Saturday afternoon to scout their title game opponent. They headed the French Quarter early with no thoughts of Mississippi State or Georgia.
Just think how surprised they’ll be today when Mississippi State shows up.
“They are the No. 1 team in the country. There’s no pressure on us,” MSU point guard Marcus Bullard said. “You never know how good you are until you play the No. 1 team.”
“This is what you play for,” added MSU forward Dontae’ Jones. “Sooner or later you have to face the best. Why not us and them in the championship game?”
It doesn’t take a roundball Einstein to figure out that Mississippi State needs some help. The Wildcats have won 29 straight games since tumbling to UMass in the their season opener. They rolled through the SEC regular season, bashing opponents by an average of 23.3 points per game.
In the preseason, more than one SEC coach, including MSU’s Richard Williams, said that the two best teams in the league were UK’s first team and second team. State will play them both today.
“They come at you in waves,” Williams said. “Their depth is one of the key factors. It’s overwhelming, and so is their quality of players. They don’t have much, if any, drop off in talent level.
“I said this earlier in the season — they are the best basketball team I’ve seen in the 12 years I’ve been in this league.”
So how does a team go about beating Kentucky?
“You’ve got to be able to handle their pressure,” MSU forward Whit Hughes said. “You’ve got to know when to attack their defense and know when to pull out. You’ve got to defend them on the perimeter, contest every shot, and hope they have a bad shooting night.”
Whit, you might want to consider sneaking behind their bench dropping a few sleeping pills in their Gatorade.
“It’s going to be difficult to beat them,” Hughes admitted. “We’ll have to play our best game of the year.”
Remember, State’s “best game” last year was played Feb. 14 in Lexington, Ky. That night the Bulldogs gave UK a big maroon Valentine, winning 76-71. The Wildcats haven’t lost to an SEC foe since.
What I’m trying to say is — nothing’s impossible.
Gene Phelps is sports editor for the Daily Journal