Kyle Wiltjer must defend better today than he did against Vanderbilt. - USA TODAY Sports
The Kentucky Wildcats welcome the Missouri Tigers into Rupp Arena for the first time as an SEC foe. This game is pregnant with NCAA Tournament implications for Kentucky.
Tonight, the Kentucky Wildcats take on the Missouri Tigers for the first time as SEC opponents, a game many pundits are pointing to as a major measure of Kentucky’s worthiness for the NCAA Tournament this year. With the value of the Wildcats’ win over the Mississippi Rebels losing most of its luster recently due to Ole Miss’ strugges, tournament bracketologists look at this as though it is a must-win game for Kentucky.
Missouri also needs this victory, primarily due to their very poor road résumé – The Tigers have only one SEC road win to their credit, a thumping of cellar-dweller Mississippi St. That’s hurting their credibility and seeding as an NCAA Tournament team, but not enough to put them into jeopardy of not getting a bid.
RELATED: Game Preview from Rock M Nation
Here are how the two teams compare, courtesy of Statsheet.com:
|Rank and Records||Mizzou||UK|
|Strength of Schedule||#54||#62|
|RPI Top 50||3-3||0-5|
Kentucky and Missouri, despite being geographically pretty close, have rarely played. The Wildcats are currently 4-0 against the Tigers, and their last meeting was back in 1999 in the Maui Classic. Kentucky has only met once in a regular season game, all the way back in December of 1960. Every other meeting up until today’s game was a tournament affair.
John Brown owns the record for points against the Wildcats by a Missouri player, 34 back in 1971. For Kentucky, Bill Likcert scored 29 against the Tigers in their very first meeting back in December of 1960.
Missouri is a very balanced scoring team with all five starters averaging in double figures in points. There is really nobody in the starting lineup that can’t lead Mizzou in scoring on a given day. The leading scorer is Lawrence Bowers (14.2 ppg), despite missing five games in the early part of the SEC season with an injury. Predictably, the Tigers are a much better team with Bowers on the floor. Bowers is also the best percentage 3-point shooter on the team, although Ross and Brown take more.
Connecticut Huskies transfer Alex Oriakhi is the team’s leading rebounder at 8.6 rpg. Oriakhi is one of the best offensive rebounders in the nation, and it is important for Kentucky to find a way to neutralize that. Missouri is also the best defensive rebounding team in the SEC, so getting offensive rebounds against them will be difficult.
The ice that chills the Tiger drink, though, is point guard Phil Pressey. Pressey is in the top 25 in the nation in assist rate. Pressey is best when he distributes the basketball instead of looking for his own shot, which also happens to be true of Ryan Harrow, who will be defending him. Containing Pressey’s penetration will be key to a Kentucky victory tonight.
Four Factors and Ken Pomeroy Analysis
|Missouri with ball||Kentucky with ball|
|Adj. Efficiency||107.7 2||102.7 12||105.4 4||97.6 4|
|Adj. Tempo||68.4 3||65.2 7|
|Effective FG%:||50.9 3||45.2 2||52.2 2||49.2 10|
|Turnover %:||20.2 7||14.9 14||20.8 8||19.5 8|
|Off. Reb. %:||35.1 3||33.3 10||34.8 4||25.1 1|
|FTA/FGA:||38.2 7||30.1 5||46.1 1||33.0 7|
|3P%:||33.6 5||33.2 7||35.1 4||33.6 9|
|2P%:||51.2 3||43.5 3||52.0 2||48.5 9|
|FT%:||78.0 1||71.9 13||65.2 12||68.4 6|
|Block%:||8.8 2||15.5 1||10.2 5||9.1 12|
|Steal%:||10.6 10||6.9 13||9.0 5||11.7 5|
|Based on SEC play only. Number to right is conference rank
The Four Factors chart shows the two teams are very even, but they don’t really account for the recent changes in the Wildcats’ personnel, which is to say the injury of Nerlens Noel.
The Ken Pomeroy table shows a little better the impact of the two very bad losses that Kentucky suffered last week. Notably, Kentucky is currently the 4th worst defensive team in the SEC, a conference not really noted for that much strength. The 30-point UK loss to Tennessee has a lot to do with that, as well as the recent narrow victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores in which the Wildcats allowed Vandy to score over 1.14 points/possession.
Missouri comes into this game off a big home win against the Florida Gators, so this game, while not really meeting the criteria of a trap game, looks very much like a game in which a letdown is possible. That, the improved offensive play by Kentucky against Vanderbilt, and the value of playing at home with a hyped, partisan crowd still feeling the excitement from an ESPN College GameDay appearance auger in favor of Kentucky.
For Kentucky to win this game, they must control the penetration of Pressey and keep Oriakhi off the offensive glass. Those two items are jobs #1 and 1a for Kentucky. Giving the Tigers a bunch of second shots is a sure recipe for disaster, and when Pressey gets into the paint, he draws fouls and kicks out to open 3-point shooters.
Kentucky, offensively, must find a way to keep some of the efficiency they found against Vandy on Wednesday. Kentucky was very good at finding good, open shots and getting the ball to Willie Cauley-Stein in deep post position and off pick and rolls. Mizzou is mostly a man-to-man team, but they do play zone on some possessions.
It will be critical for Kyle Wiltjer not to be a liability on defense in this game. He really struggled against Vanderbilt both times this year, and Vandy went right at him. You know that fact is not lost on Frank Haith, so I expect the Tigers to immediately attack Wiltjer when he comes in the game.
Speaking of Haith, he got an NCAA Notice of Allegations this week. Although I suspect he and the Mizzou faithful will deny it, that is a distraction that you really don’t need going on the road, where you have had very little success this year, to play in front of 22K + opponents and a talented, if underachieving, basketball team. That may be the unspoken factor in this game.
This game’s outcome is very difficult to foresee. At their best, these two teams are very equal. It’s tough to tell how the intangibles, such as the continuing adjustment to the loss of Nerlens, the Haith allegations, and the struggles of Missouri on the road will figure in. To me, it looks like a push, and the oddsmakers have the line between -1.5 and -3 for Kentucky. Of the two teams, I think Kentucky needs this more, but Missouri desperately needs a quality road win, so there’s that.