The unbalanced schedule has left Mizzou with an away game in Lexington, Kentucky! Yay!
The Tigers and Wildcats have not played this year, and if you don't follow college basketball at all you may not know much about this version of John Caliper's Kentucky Wildcats. The headlines are the Wildcats are 15-4 and led by a talented group of freshmen and sophomores, etc etc etc. They're always led by young players, but this Wildcats roster features two juniors (Derek Willis and Marcus Lee) playing major minutes, and is relying on Alex Poythress for senior leadership. Jamal Murray, a 5-star freshmen from Canada, is leading the team in scoring at 17.8 ppg, and Tyler Ulis, the diminutive sophomore point guard from the Chicago area, is chipping in around 15 points per game. Isaiah Briscoe and Skal Labissiere also provide scoring punch as highly touted freshmen.
But this years version has been more vulnerable than in the past few years. Everything bottomed out a few weeks ago with a road loss to Auburn (the same Auburn team that Missouri had beaten by 17 points). They've struggled at times, but the Auburn loss has seemed to have woken them up a bit as they managed to beat the tar out of a good Vanderbilt team, and easily handled Arkansas in Fayetteville. Kentucky has been sleep walking a bit, and may have woken up just in time to play our Tigers. Woo!
BEST WIN(S): Louisville (3) 75-73; Duke (20) 74-63; Vanderbilt (37) 76-57;
WORST LOSS(ES): Auburn (159) 75-70; Ohio State (70) 74-67; UCLA (62) 87-77;
Q&A With A SEA OF BLUE
When you need info on Kentucky sports, you turn to Jason Marcum and he supplies everything you need. Jason is our good friend from A Sea of Blue who has been on our podcast and always ready to answer any questions we have about his Wildcats.
RockMNation: The Wildcats have had a rougher start to this season than maybe a lot of UK fans are accustomed to... what has been a few of the bigger reasons why Kentucky has struggled, particularly in conference play, to this point?
Jason Marcum: More than anything, it's been physicality. They've just let teams push them around far too often, mostly in the post. They've got size and talent, but just didn't have the fight to be as physical as they need to be. However, they've amped up their intensity over the past few weeks and are looking better and better each game. They're learning that bad basketball teams can play great a few times per season, and their best games is more often than not going to come against UK.
It's like Cal says, playing Kentucky is everyone's Super Bowl. Teams like Auburn and maybe even LSU aren't going to play in the NCAA Tournament or possibly even the NIT, so getting to take down a national power is the next best thing. These young Cats have learned this and are beginning to bring their best games for 40 minutes every night, which is often what it takes to win on the road in the SEC.
RMN: Tyler Ulis has really been the biggest bright spot for the Wildcats, what does Ulis bring that is unique to not just the Wildcats, but the college basketball in general?
Marcum: Ulis is simply one of the few guards in college basketball hat can do it all. Passing, scoring, rebounding and defense are all areas he's thrived at, depending on what's been needed of him. Ulis is a major pest on defense and is why most backcourts finish with stat lines like what Vandy and Arkansas had last week (both starting backcourts were combined 15-of-45 shooting for 33.3%).He's had multiple 20+ point games, grabbed six steals in one game and 10 rebounds in another. Ulis is also averaging 20.8 points, 4.3 boards and 5.8 assists over his last four games as he's really become the best player on this team and one of the best guards in college. Again, you won't find many, if any players who dominate both ends of the court like Ulis does. He may not do any one thing elite, but his overall game makes him an elite player.
RMN: One of the bigger headlines is the struggles of Skal Labissiere, what explains his slow start and what does he need to do to dig himself out of the hole?
Marcum: Skal has been a major disappointment this season. He often looks like he's never played basketball against anyone other than someone you'd find in a church league. Whether it's a top-25 team like Louisville or a bottom-feeder like Illinois State, Skal just hasn't been able to hold his own in the paint, and that's really hurt UK this season as it was clear they built a lot of their offense around him over the summer.
But he's getting better, and the team in general has shown more fight and intensity over the past few weeks. That's why they looked so good last week against Arkansas and Vanderbilt, two teams who aren't that great, but are as good, if not better than any of the four teams that have beaten UK to this point.
RMN: What are the things that Kentucky needs to have happen for them to consider themselves a title contender at this point and are you still hopeful that they put it all together?
Marcum: Skal find himself. The emergence of Derek Willis has given Skal more time to develop, but when the NCAA Tournament comes around, this team simply isn't going to make it to the Final Four unless Skal can start giving them at least 20 good minutes per game. He doesn't have to score 12-15 points or grab 8-10 boards, but he has to give them positive minutes, something he's not done much of in SEC play.
RMN: Is there anything that worries you about this game? If so, what? And how do you think this all plays out, with a final score prediction?
Marcum: The typical lookahead trap is certainly in play. Playing at Kansas is something guys can't help but look forward to, so it's easy to see this young UK team looking past Missouri and allowing them to make this a close game. And it's not like Mizzou has been bad in SEC play as of late. They've barely lost to top-25 Texas A&M and South Carolina teams, not to mention whipping an Auburn team that beat UK.
Nothing surprises me in this college basketball season, so seeing the Tigers push these Cats wouldn't either. I think this game ends up being fairly close, enough so that the Tigers pull to within single digits a couple of times in the second half.
In the end, I see UK holding serve at home and coming away with 73-61 win.
Big thanks to Jason for answering our Kentucky questions. Let's move on to see how Mizzou might stay competitive in his game.
If you're looking statistically, well, it's not a pretty picture. Kentucky is a pretty good defensive team, Missouri isn't a very good offensive team. Meanwhile, Kentucky is a pretty good offensive team, and Missouri is an ok defensive team. All in all this isn't a very good matchup for Mizzou, but they have to play the game anyway.
When Kentucky has struggled, it's been with the physical play on the interior. Missouri isn't going to by physically imposing very often, but if there was a game where they could just grit their way into a close game against a superior opponent, this is the one. You aren't likely to out grit Georgia, South Carolina or Texas A&M, but you can out grit Kentucky. Missouri needs to play fast and aggressive around the rim and hope that guys like Labissiere, Lee, Willis and Poythress get frustrated and start hacking. Kentucky will send you to the line if they start getting frustrated.
1) Take ALL the free points
Getting to the free throw line on the road is going to be important. It's going to be hard to pull this off in Lexington, but if Mizzou can make more FT's than the Wildcats shoot they'll be in good shape.
2) Good Wes?
The downside of this is that Wes Clark will likely be guarded by one of the best on the ball defenders in college basketball in Tyler Ulis. Ulis does a great job of frustrating the opponents point guard, so Wes will have to have his best game of the season. This team seems to only go as far as Wes can take them, let's hope he can take them a little further than normal today.
3) Simply Make Shots
I almost feel like this is a cop out for the third key, but Mizzou has gone on the road against two ranked opponents in the last few weeks and hung around. They ended up getting clipped by both South Carolina and Texas A&M because they couldn't make enough shots. Mizzou absolutely needs its shot makers to hit them. Namon Wright needs to find the range from 3, Wes needs to play big, and it would be nice to have a third guy step up and make some unexpected three pointers also. I'll take a Cullen VanLeer coming out party, or even Kevin Puryear stepping out to bury a couple. Now is the time guys.
With that said, it's extremely unlikely that Mizzou wins this game, Kentucky is at 94% projection to win with a score of 78-61. This is actually the lowest win probability for the remainder of the year. So that's not so bad right? If you read Bill's "Is Missouri Improving" piece, you'd notice that Missouri has quietly (outside of two games) beaten projections over the last eight games. That trend really needs to continue. Moral victories may not be much fun overall, but they are important. Last year Missouri took the court in Lexington and was laughed out of town with an embarrassing loss. This season needs to be different.
I obviously think Kentucky is going to win, and I would be thrilled if the Tigers were able to score more than 70 points. I'm going to assume I won't be thrilled by the end of the game, but I think I'll be slightly pleased. I'll say the Tigers lose by a final of 75-66. Progress, right?