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Live Game Thread: Tigers venture into Rupp looking to make a statement

After taking down the ‘Cats last season, Mizzou will look to pull off a stunner in hostile territory.

NCAA Basketball: Central Arkansas at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri 77 | Kentucky 90

Final


1st Half Notes

  • Sizzling starts to this game from both teams. Mizzou is 5-for-8 from the floor while UK is 6-for-7, and the game is being played at a breakneck pace.
  • An early 3-pointer from Nick Honor is encouraging, perhaps a sign that he is regaining his rhythm.
  • In a pick your poison affair, Tre Mitchell is the Wildcat that’s lighting Mizzou up thus far. The forward has 8 points on 3-for-3 shooting.
  • Sporadic play in recent minutes from both sides. A turnover from Antonio Reeves is a rare right. Turnovers from both Sean East and Nick Honor are even rarer.
  • Rob Dillingham with an NBA-level pull-up jumper. That graphic showing the NBA projections for the Kentucky players (like eight of them) was absurd.
  • Great pass from Jesus Carralero Martin that resulted in a Connor Vanover dunk. Signs of his early-season dimes.
  • 11:41 (28-21): Main issue thus far: Kentucky has weapons in all areas of the floor. Help defense is a death sentence, but with the talent level that the Wildcats possess, hanging with any of them 1-on-1 is nearly impossible. To no surprise, UK is a matchup nightmare.
  • A quick 7-0 run from Kentucky extended the lead to 35-21, but the Tigers responded with a touchdown of their own to cut it in half. East is beginning to catch fire.
  • Mabor Majak with a rare appearance. John Tonje also into the game.
  • 6:58 (UK 35-31): A 3-pointer from Noah Carter cuts the lead to four points. He leads the team with 11 points thus far.
  • Deliberate, controlled move from East to back down Dillingham and get that and-one.
  • Reed Sheppard dices up Mizzou’s full-court pressure and creates an easy lob opportunity. Tigers likely won’t do that much more given UK’s ability to handle the ball.
  • A Tamar Bates’ 3-pointer staves off another UK run. Tigers have done well to respond to each of Kentucky’s counterpunches.
  • Keeping up with the ongoing free throw struggles for Mizzou: The Tigers have shot five to Kentucky’s nine in this game, missing three of them.
  • The stop-and-go may be the best move in Sean East’s arsenal. A hesitation from him is a death sentence for a defender.
  • That may have been the most on-brand play we’ve ever sene from Sean East. He flicked the ball across the court to Noah Carter when a double ran at him, and the forward converted for an and-one. Nobody but Carter saw it coming. Incredible play.

2nd Half Notes

  • Take a photo; Mizzou has drawn more fouls than Kentucky this half (1-0).
  • Justin Edwards had struggled up to this point, but he drove through Vanover for an and-one opportunity.
  • Update: That would advantage was flipped on UK’s next possession.
  • 17:08 (UK 55-46): Kentucky has gotten a couple of easy buckets in transition to start this half. Not a good sign.
  • A Bates’ 3-pointer answers a Kentucky shot from the same distance, but the Tigers got the ball back and sent Bates to the stripe. The goal at this juncture is to hang around and give yourself a chance to win it in the final minutes.
  • The best back-to-back possessions of Jesus Carralero Martin’s time with Mizzou. He found Bates on a nice middle cut before he spun for a lay-in.
  • This is officially a shootout.
  • Aidan Shaw has not seen the floor much since he started out there. Maybe that dunk will get him back into this one.
  • Answer: Yeah, it did. He somehow blocked a 3-pointer that he sold out to reach for.
  • And then he did that to Wagner. Unreal.
  • 8:11 (UK 73-64): Tigers have a 7-6 foul advantage in this half. Big stuff.
  • Sean East II down after taking an elbow to the face. He walks off the floor and has a towel over his face.
  • We are at 14 free throws in Rupp Arena.
  • The bump under East’s left eye is massive. Looks like he may attempt to come back in and he can open and close his eye, but that’s a painful shiner.
  • Tigers hung around throughout this game but could never truly close the gap. Carter, East and Bates were yet again strong, but UK’s plethora of talented scorers overwhelmed the visitors.

Pregame Updates


5 Fan Questions:

  1. Who will lead the team in scoring?
  2. How many steals will the Tigers record?
  3. How many 3-pointers will Sean East II hit?
  4. What will be the halftime score be?
  5. Who will be the surprise star of the day?

Lastly, drop your game predictions and MVPs down below.


Tonight’s Preview

Rupp Arena.

One of college basketball’s most historic and daunting venues to play at. Countless legendary players and coaches have graced that hardwood, and this 2023-24 Kentucky squad looks like another that could go down in the history books.

The Wildcats have gotten out to a strong start this season, having taken down Miami in dominant fashion and winning a shootout over North Carolina. UK nearly took down Kansas at the Champions Classic, and their only other defeat came in upset fashion at the hands of a strong UNC Wilmingon team. John Calipari has a team that is versatile, shares the ball well and is stingy on the defensive end.

Thus, it will be a tall order for the Tigers to walk out of Rupp Arena with a victory, especially with UK eager to exact revenge after Mizzou ran the blue and white out of COMO with an 89-75 win in December of last year. But, the Tigers are certainly capable of playing up to their opponents, and they could survive in a track meet. Playing a consistent 40 minutes of basketball, unlike they did against Georgia, will be one of many keys to an upset.

Let’s get into it.


Game Info

Time: 6:00 p.m CST

Date: January 9th, 2024

Location: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.

TV: ESPN


The Starters

Mizzou

PG: Nick Honor (Grad, 10.9 PPG)
SG: Sean East II (Grad, 17.1 PPG)
SF: Tamar Bates (JR, 10.2 PPG)
PF: Aidan Shaw (SOPH, 4.1 PPG)
C: Noah Carter (Grad, 11.5 PPG)

Notable Sixth Man: Jesus Carralero Martin (SR, 1.7 PPG)

Kentucky

PG: D.J. Wagner (FR, 12.1 PPG)
SG: Antonio Reeves (SR, 19.0 PPG)
SF: Justin Edwards (FR, 9.5 PPG)
PF: Tre Mitchell (SR, 12.7 PPG)
C: Aaron Bradshaw (FR, 7.7 PPG)

Notable Sixth Man: Rob Dillingham (FR. 13.7 PPG)

*These are projected starters. Also, in today’s college basketball, positions rarely mean much. Those are included purely for perspective on what matchups on the court may look like.


NCAA Basketball: St. Joseph at Kentucky
The passion will never leave Mr. Calipari.
Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Get To Know Kentucky

The Coach: What is there that I can say about John Calipari that doesn’t speak for itself?

The Basketball Hall of Famer has six Final Fours, six SEC regular season titles, six SEC tournament titles and a national championship to his name. He’s coached virtually half of the stars in the current NBA. He’s a three-time Naismith Coach of the Year and was voted SEC Coach of the Year on four separate occasions.

His résumé speaks for itself, and at 64 years of age, Calipari is still just as passionate and energetic as ever.

The Season Thus Far: That is in large part because he has a team that is fully capable of bringing him his second national title. The Wildcats fell to Kansas at the Champions Classic early in the season but led for much of that game. They followed that up with a dominant 95-73 win over a strong Miami team just a couple of weeks later, and they have since taken down North Carolina, Louisville and Florida. The aforementioned loss to the Seahawks was odd, but we’re just going to chalk that up to the ‘Cats not taking a strong mid-major seriously enough.

The Key Stats: Offensively, this team is dynamite. Kentucky ranks in the top ten nationally in adjusted efficiency, turnover percentage and 3-point shooting, and they’ve eclipsed the 80-point mark on 12 occasions this season. The only time they didn’t? The 80-73 loss to UNC Wilmington.

And, the ‘Cats aren’t too shabby on the other end either. They grab a steal on 11.6% of opponent’s possessions and have an adjusted defensive efficiency of 97.4 (44th in the nation). Cal sometimes struggles to get his star-studded prospects to play stout defense in addition to explosive offense. That is not the case for this team.

The Stars: Perhaps the biggest strength of this Kentucky squad is its versatility. Five players average more than 10 points per game, and it comes from veterans and youngsters alike.

Antonio Reeves was expected to be one of the leaders of this team following a productive 2022-23 campaign, and he has lived up to that and then some. He leads the squad with 19.0 points per game and shoots 52% from the floor and 44.4% from behind the arc. He’s tough to rattle and is a mainstay on the floor for UK.

Not surprisingly, a quartet of freshmen play significant minutes for Calipari. D.J. Wagner, Rob Dillingham and Justin Edwards were all top 10 prospects in the Class of 2023 and have proven why through the first two months of the season. Dillingham has been a do-it-all guy, averaging 13.7 PPG, 3.6 RBG and a team-high 4.2 APG. He’s also the most utilized player on this Kentucky squad, impacting the final result on over 29.3% of Kentucky’s possessions.

Edwards and Wagner also join Dillingham in being freshmen phenoms, with the 6-foot-7 Edwards being tough to contain down low while Wagner acts as more of a pure scoring threat that helps run the offense.

Reed Sheppard is a difference case. The 4-star recruit out of London, Ky. was not expected to have a major impact for this team, but it’s been impossible for Coach Calipari to keep him off the floor. Sheppard is a high-energy player that averages 12.6 PPG on 57.4% shooting. But, he truly does it all, leading the team in steals and averaging over four rebounds and assists per game. Sheppard can be a microwave from behind the arc and has quickly become a fan favorite and consistent member of the rotation.

But, unlike some past Kentucky squads, this one features some veterans. Alongside Reeves, senior forward Tre Mitchell plays a team-high 33 minutes per game and is yet another Wildcat that stuffs the box score (team-leading 7.3 RPG).

7-foot-1 freshman Aaron Bradshaw began playing in December and has become a spark for the team as well. He finished with 10 points and seven rebounds in the win over Florida last week, and he made a handful of clutch plays to secure the victory.


3 Keys To The Game

  1. Handling the road environment

The Tigers have been road warriors for much of this season, picking up key wins over Minnesota and Pittsburgh in hostile environments and handling The Phog relatively well.

“Being at Minnesota and at Pitt, those are road games to build up momentum,” Gates said. “I’m excited about what our schedule has provided us in preparation.”

They’ll need to carry that same energy into Rupp, because while The Barn and The Zoo are tough places to play at, they pale in comparison to the challenge of playing in this building.

Kentucky will go on some runs in this game and will hold a sizable lead with the home crowd at its back. How the Tigers respond to that inevitability will determine if they are able to make this a game late in the second half.

2. Take care of the ball

Kentucky averages 8.8 steals per game and is led by Sheppard in that regard, who racks up 2.5 per game. The easiest way to get ran out of Rupp will be to turn the ball over to an offense that already really doesn’t need any help in scoring. The veteran guards (Honor, East, Bates) will be counted upon to be smart and efficient on offense, and this is also the kind of game where we will see how ready Anthony Robinson II is for the bright lights of the SEC. To hold UK under that magical 80 point number, Mizzou can’t sniff 10 turnovers.

3. Take away two of the ‘Cats scoring options

Between Reeves, Sheppard, Dillingham, Mitchell and Wagner, UK has an embarrassment of riches on the offensive end. But, what makes this team truly special is the way it spreads the ball around and does not overly rely on one player to shoulder the load.

You can’t stop them all. The Tigers can only hope to take away two-to-three of the main options and deal with whoever gets hot as a result.


NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Game Prediction

KenPom Prediction: Kentucky 87 | Missouri 73

My Prediction: Kentucky 81 | Missouri 70

I had the chance to see Rupp from the outside for the first time when I visited for the Missouri-Kentucky football game in the fall.

It looks more like a convention center than a basketball arena. The place is intimidating purely because of its size and elaborate set-up...and of course the raucous crowds that always pack the stadium.

It will be no small feat to walk into that place and pull off a victory. Plenty of SEC teams have historically struggled to pull off wins at Rupp Arena, and it takes a truly special performance to escape there with a win.

Thus, the Tigers have to play their A game. We saw it against Pitt and Wichita State, and then for periods of time against Kansas and Seton Hall. The Illinois result was concerning, the UCA result was encouraging, and then the Georgia performance was both encouraging and concerning. Still, at 8-6, this team has a lot to work out and is not at all where it needs to be at this juncture of this season.

“I have to figure out how to get out guys to explode and finish in the paint a bit better,” Gates said. “So that we can come away with some tough and-ones and baskets.”

In the end, I think Mizzou gives Calipari a scare, but the home crowd and versatility of this UK team will be too much to overcome.