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A hyper-talented Kentucky team represents Mizzou’s latest challenge

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Kentucky comes to town as Missouri is trying to change the direction of its season (1:00 p.m. CT, CBS).

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday night Missouri took a step towards changing the momentum of their season. It was trending downwards before their win on the road in Tuscaloosa but now hope suddenly springs eternal again. And facing down the Tigers is a Saturday afternoon matchup against the Kentucky Wildcats.

Missouri has never beaten Kentucky. They’re 0-10 all time vs their new conference rival, and that mark is the most games they’ve played versus another school without netting a victory. Next on the list is the Duke Blue Devils who Missouri is 0-2 all time against.

The Wildcats aren’t quite the team we’re used to seeing however.

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NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky is always young, but this team is even more so. The Wildcats struggles this year have been magnified by a few things, most notably their overall lack of truly elite talent.

Don’t get me wrong, the Wildcats are talented. But they’re missing a sure fire lottery pick. Since John Calipari took over the job, this is the top pick selected in the NBA draft from the Kentucky Wildcats:

  • in 2017: #5 De’Aaron Fox
  • in 2016: #7 Jamal Murray
  • in 2015: #1 Karl Anthony Towns
  • in 2014: #7 Julius Randle
  • in 2013: #6 Nerlens Noel
  • in 2012: #1 Anthony Davis
  • in 2011: #3 Enes Kanter
  • in 2010: #1 John Wall

The closest to these players is Kevin Knox, and even most experts would admit Knox is a pretty big work in progress. Most Mizzou fans will remember Knox for his visit to Mizzou with Michael Porter Jr and Blake Harris. Knox obviously ended up at Kentucky, but where Cal is used to getting top five players this year, Knox is the highest rated recruits for the ‘Cats at #11.

They also have a plethora of five star players, but no real leadership in experience and Cal is currently deploying a rotation of only freshmen and sophomores. And it’s shown with their inconsistency.

Capable of going from a 2.2% win expectancy down 17 in the second half on the road to a top 10 opponent to winning, and turning around the very next game at home and needing a miracle and overtime to defeat an 8-13 team in Vanderbilt. So the ‘Cats are a bit inconsistent. Yet with however inconsistent they are, they’re still a top 30 team and they’re 17-5 and no real bad losses.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

PROJECTED STARTERS

  • PG: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander vs Kassius Robertson
  • CG: Hamidou Diallo vs Cullen VanLeer
  • WING: Kevin Knox vs Jordan Barnett
  • CF: Wenyen Gabriel vs Kevin Puryear
  • POST: Nick Richards vs Jeremiah Tilmon

Length and athleticism across the board for Kentucky, but Missouri might be starting two seniors, two juniors and a freshman. While Kentucky will be starting a sophomore and four freshmen. The Tigers will have a clear edge in experience and that might be about it.

From a matchup standpoint, Kentucky likely has the advantage at every position except for perhaps at the center position.

SGA, as he’s called for brevity sake, has turned into one of the more exciting prospects in the country. He’s a long and silky smooth combo guard who has been given the reigns and carried Kentucky in their last win. If Kassius Robertson is matched up against him he’ll have his hands full on defense, and you want Robertson mostly locked in offensively.

Diallo is a supreme athlete and will probably be the most athletic guy on the floor and Mizzou is matching him up against Cullen VanLeer. CVL has played very well the last few games so there’s reason to believe he can help in this game, but there’s a world of difference in athleticism on this matchup.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Barnett may be able to limit Knox more than you’d expect. Knox isn’t the kind of guy to take over games much from the dribble drive, so if you can close out on him you can force him into tough shots. But he will have good length which should bother Barnett.

If Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter bring what they did against Alabama the UK bigs are going to have their hands full because none of them are truly special. Richards is big and can jump, Gabriel can stretch the floor a bit, but my favorite guy is P.J. Washington. He’s strong and has excellent movement and lower body strength in the mid and low block. He’s also one of the few Wildcats who can routinely absorb contact and still finish.

mizzou kentucky kenpom 2018

Two teams who play pretty good offense and pretty good defense are going to play a basketball game.

Missouri is favored by a couple points according to KenPom models, which basically say in two average performances from these two teams the home court advantage would be enough to carry the day for the Tigers.

But we know we’re not going to get two average performances from these two teams. Two teams who seem to run plenty hot and plenty cold. If you get both teams hot, the Wildcats are more talented and probably win. If Kentucky is cold and Mizzou is hot this should be an easy win.

Good news is Kentucky doesn’t force turnovers. They play good defense, but mostly through affected shots and blocks. Shooting over Kentucky’s length is enough, they don’t need to force turnovers. Bad news is getting their shots blocked and affected is a problem for the Tigers. They haven’t faced a roster with the kind of athleticism and length the Wildcats boast and that could be a problem.

At the same time Kentucky often switches into zone because despite they’re length and athleticism they’re prone to lazy rotations and lackadaisical help side. Missouri will need to exploit these weaknesses to get their offense moving.

Defensively Kentucky is fairly easy to defend. They’re a little accustomed to asserting their will when they want so they don’t often move without the ball which causes the offensive movement to be stagnant. You can see often during the game how frustrated Calipari becomes watching his teams lack of energy.

I don’t think energy will be a problem on Saturday however. The building should be packed, the game will be on CBS nationally. It’s the kind of game where Missouri will have to have their best performance to pull out a victory. After the win at Alabama the victory seemed to boost moods amongst the players and fans alike. Winning that game stemmed the tide of the oncoming despair most fans were beginning to feel.

Looking at these two games in tandem at the start of the week you hoped Mizzou could go 1-1 just to hold on. Now, they got the first game and you start to get greedy.

Missouri has a real chance to beat Kentucky tomorrow. Play the kind of game you’re capable of and let the chips fall where they may. I’m rarely one for cliches but Missouri needs to worry about being it’s best self as often as possible. Do that, and you win.