By Parrish Alford
TAMPA, Fla. – In the end Jodie Meeks got his 20, but his pathway was fraught with peril.
And with obstacles placed by an old high school rival.
Meeks, Kentucky’s star shooting guard, was the focus of the defensive game plan for Ole Miss back on Jan. 27. Zach Graham took the defensive lead when the Rebels went man-to-man, and Meeks shot just 4-for-15 from the field in an 85-80 Ole Miss victory.
The rematch is at noon today in the first round of the SEC tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy believes the Rebels (16-14, 7-9 SEC) need to get physical with the Wildcats again if they are to continue into postseason play.
Kentucky was ranked No. 24 when it lost in Oxford but enters today having lost eight of 11 – beginning with Ole Miss – and four straight.
“That was the first time I’d seen a defense like that all focused on me,” Meeks said.
Meeks hit only 2-of-13 field goals over the first 39 minutes. He dropped in a couple of late 3-pointers to get up to 21 for the game.
It was a defensive coming-out party for Graham, who played against Meeks in high school then teamed with him in AAU ball as the two grew up in suburban Atlanta. Once Kennedy knew he’d play the season without junior guard Eniel Polynice, his best on-ball defender, Graham became much more important in terms of what he could do defensively.
His effort against Meeks was televised on ESPN.
“I just remember trying to face guard him and play as hard as I could,” Graham said. “Defense is more mental than physical. You can’t relax. As soon as you relax you’re beat.”
As Kentucky (19-12, 8-8) has struggled down the stretch, Meeks has gotten his points, but his success rate has been spotty.
He finished the regular season as the SEC’s leading scorer at 24.7 points a game. He put up 45 at Arkansas on Feb. 14 and scored 20-plus in three of his last six games.
Only once in his last five games did he shoot better than 29 percent from 3-point range. He was 0-for-7 behind the arc at Tennessee on Feb. 21.
Meeks bristles at the suggestion that the Wildcats are a two-man show between himself and center Patrick Patterson, both All-SEC first-team selections. Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, however, says his team’s success – and that of Meeks individually – depends largely on what the supporting cast can get done offensively.
Kentucky’s third-leading scorer, forward Perry Stevenson, averages 7.4 points. Everyone else on the roster is at or below 5.3 per game.
“How successful Jodie is is usually dictated by how much help we give him,” Gillispie said. “Teams won’t focus on one or two players if the other guys prove consistently that they can beat them.”
Kennedy is aware of the potential of the Wildcats’ other players. He is a firm believer that statistics over the course of a season identify the threats that require the most attention.
“We’ve got to know where he is. We have to team defend. We’ll try to deny his touches as much as possible. If you allow him rhythm jump shots you’re at his mercy.”