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Hoops Preview: Missouri opens SEC play against an always talented Kentucky

The Wildcats aren’t a perfect team by any means, but it’s always hard to face a squad with this much talent.

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

After Missouri lost to Charleston Southern earlier this season, I saw a tweet that said something to this effect (apologies to the original tweeter, I sleuthed for 15 minutes and couldn’t find it): “Mizzou was brought to the SEC as a basketball school, and now they’re firing bowl eligible coaches and are terrible at basketball... they’ve gone native!”

The “native” line was the key. I apologize for any humor that was lost in translation.

The point is that the SEC has never been viewed as a basketball powerhouse. Yes, Kentucky is the bluest of blue bloods, and Florida is always competitive. Aside from that, though, which program stuns you with its hardwood legacy? Arkansas was really good once. Tennessee has somewhat of a history (I guess). Vanderbilt has a weird court, so maybe they know something we don’t.

In the past few years, things have shifted a bit. It’s been almost eight years since an SEC school conquered March, but the league’s fortunes have turned. Tennessee has become an annual contender under Rick Barnes. Will Wade and Bruce Pearl have used their recruiting “prowess” to make LSU and Auburn really good. Ole Miss and Mississippi State have been competitive. Hell, even South Carolina made a Final Four!

As we round into a new decade, however, it seems like things are shifting again. It may be a blip, but the SEC stands as one of the weaker conferences in 2019-2020, one with no clear-cut contenders and a particularly squishy middle.

This is potentially good news for a team like Missouri. The Tigers have a pair of Quadrant 1 wins on their resume (for now), and a weaker SEC gives the Tigers some leeway to claw themselves back from that horrendous loss to CSU. Of course, the inverse narrative lurks as well — the selection committee could be less forgiving to a Missouri team that is able to grab some quality wins if they can’t hold serve against the SEC’s bottom tier.

In any case, there’s an opportunity for Missouri to control its own destiny as it kicks off league play on Saturday. And what better way to establish yourself as a new contender than to challenge the seat of SEC basketball power?

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (8-4) Kentucky (9-3)
Position Missouri (8-4) Kentucky (9-3)
PG Dru Smith (Rs. Jr., 6'3", 203) Ashton Hagans (So., 6'3", 198)
CG Mark Smith (Jr., 6'5", 220) Tyrese Maxey (Fr., 6'3", 198)
WING Kobe Brown (Fr., 6'7", 240) Immanuel Quickley (So., 6'3", 188)
PF Mitchell Smith (Jr., 6'10", 221) EJ Montgomery (So., 6'10", 228)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Jr., 6'10", 260) Nick Richards (Jr., 6'11", 247)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

Playing Kentucky is almost always like staring into a foggy crystal ball... you know you’re watching NBA players, but you can’t get a final vision of who they are. Part of what Calipari does so well is how he neutralizes hero ball instincts and creates chemistry with a host of alpha talents.

Kentucky’s main trio comes in the form of three 6’3” guards who should all hear their names called come draft season. Sophomores Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley are the old heads of the group. And while both have some maturing to do, it wouldn’t do to forget their elite talents, Hagans especially. He’s an elite playmaker (43 percent assist rate!), an efficient shooter (nearly 60 percent true shooting) and boasts a free throw rate of 59.4 percent. Once he gets there, he knocks them down to the cool tune of 84 percent. Quickley isn’t nearly as dynamic, but does well in taking care of the ball. He works at getting to the rim and line as well, and hits at nearly 95 percent from the charity stripe.

The real stars of the show, however, may be freshman Tyrese Maxey and junior Nick Richards. Maxey boasts a lower offensive rating than the other two guards, but is equally adept at getting to the line and knocking down his free throws. And while he sports the lowest three-point percentage of the three (30.2 percent), he’s the most willing shooter. He gets more run time than the rest of his teammates and takes care of the ball when he gets it. Richards, the team’s most efficient shooter and dangerous rebounder, is a handful down low, where he sports a 68.7 shooting percentage and rebounding rates off 11 or higher at both ends of the court. Surprise, surprise: he can also hit his free throws (73.2 percent).

After those four, it’s a hodgepodge of supremely talented youngsters. Former five-star recruits EJ Montgomery and Keion Brooks both get around 45 percent of available minutes. Montgomery is the more dangerous of the two, sporting above-average rebounding rates on offense and defense, while shooting a respectable 55.7 percent from two. Bucknell grad transfer Nate Sestina — the rare Kentucky senior — sports the roster’s best offensive rating due to his respectable three-point shooting (36.4 percent), elite free throw shooting (he’s missed two all year) and above average work on the boards. As if that group of seven weren’t enough, former McDonald’s All-American Kahlil Whitney waits in the wings. The freshman has struggled in limited minutes, but you always have to look out for five-stars, right?

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Kentucky Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 103 (114) 17.9 (251) 50 (149) 21.9 (294) 31.3 (87) 30.9 (189) 29.9 (288) 53.8 (54) 74.6 (54) 7.3 (60) 8.5 (118)
Kentucky 89.2 (24) 18.2 (321) 44.7 (39) 19.4 (184) 24.9 (62) 25.8 (63) 30.1 (59) 44.4 (55) 66.1 (57) 12.4 (53) 7.8 (273)
NCAA Basketball: Chicago State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Can Missouri carry over their shooting momentum?

Kentucky’s defense isn’t exactly a lockdown unit like the Tigers, but they’re balanced — aside from their lack of turnover creation, they do everything fairly well. Missouri has faced tougher defenses before, but there’s only one thing to do when you’re faced with a set of solid defenders: hit the shots you’re given. Until Chicago State, the Tigers had been one of the country’s worst teams at hitting uncontested jumpers. Then Torrence Watson hit eight threes in a game and the Tigers shot better than 50 percent as a whole. If Missouri wants a shot at stealing a win, they’ll need at least one or two players who will take advantage of open looks.

When Kentucky has the ball...

Kentucky Offense vs. Missouri Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Kentucky 109.4 (25) 17.1 (157) 50.5 (132) 17.8 (75) 31.1 (89) 39.3 (40) 29.3 (300) 53.1 (71) 79 (12) 6.8 (36) 6.3 (9)
Missouri 89.1 (22) 18.1 (309) 41.1 (3) 23.3 (33) 24.3 (43) 36.3 (269) 26 (4) 42.4 (22) 74.3 (317) 9.5 (126) 11.3 (57)
NCAA Basketball: Chicago State at Missouri
Missouri will need players like Reed Nikko to avoid fouls and clean the boards against an attack-heavy UK offense.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Crack down on second chances, free points

While Kentucky isn’t an elite shooting team, they rank high in efficiency because of their ability to create points elsewhere. Facing off against the Tigers — who rate poorly in free throws per field goal attempts — gives the Wildcats a chance to take advantage of home court and create some chances at the line. If Missouri can’t control their fouling, it could be a long afternoon.

There is another area of weakness, though, despite Kentucky’s size (29 in the country), they’re not a particularly skilled rebounding team. If Missouri can win the rebounding battle while limiting Kentucky’s chances at the line (and playing their traditionally tough-nosed brand of on-ball defense), the Tigers will have a shot in the closing minutes.

KenPom predicts...

Kentucky 68, Missouri 60 | It’s a lot to ask of Missouri to open conference play in Rupp Arena, especially against a Kentucky team that was last scene knocking off its rival Louisville. However, the Tigers appear to be battle-hardened in a four-game winning streak that featured a win at Temple and in St. Louis against Illinois. Missouri will need to play its best game of the season and avoid succumbing to the emotion of Rupp. If they do that and much up a game against a more purely talented team, they might have a shot at opening SEC play with a bang.