After a bizarre nonconference slate that saw victories over No. 1 Michigan State and No. 3 Louisville, but losses to Evansville and Utah, Kentucky (9-3) begins Southeastern Conference play Saturday against Missouri (8-4).
The Wildcats, currently ranked No. 17 after a fall from No. 1 to 19 in just six weeks, are coming off their best game of the season, a 78-70 overtime victory against rival Louisville on Dec. 28.
Some would argue that win over Louisville, coming on the heels of consecutive losses during a week-long holiday trip to Las Vegas, salvaged Kentucky’s season. Or, at a minimum, it secured a stronger seed for NCAA Tournament play in March.
Coach John Calipari begs to differ.
“There’s probably many people here that thought we were going to lose,” Calipari said. “So they could say, ‘It’s over. They’re not going to be in the NCAA tournament. They’re an NIT team.’
“But what if we had lost on a half-court bank shot? Oh, we’re done. What?” Calipari said. “That may be the No. 1 team or Ohio State, No. 1 teams in the country, and you’re right there on the court with them and that means by losing, you stink, you’re not even in the NCAA Tournament? Wait a minute. If they’re 1 and 2, maybe we’re 4 or 5. Well, ‘You lost.’ Yeah, but they’re that good, so what are we?”
Calipari has one concern entering SEC play.
“The whole thing is, is your team getting better?” the coach asked. “I don’t buy any of the stuff when they say we’re great or they say we’re bad. I don’t. I coach my team. What I’m looking at is where can this team go?”
Freshman guard Tyrese Maxey, fresh off a 27-point performance against Louisville, leads Kentucky at 14.3 points per game. Next comes sophomore guard Ashton Hagans at 13.4, junior forward Nick Richards at 12.0 and sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley at 11.7. Richards leads the Wildcats in rebounding at 7.2.
As a team, Kentucky makes 46.4 percent of its field goals, but only 29.3 from 3-point range, which ranks No. 319 out of 350 teams nationally.
UK has 183 assists versus 149 turnovers thanks in large part to Hagans, who has an 88-to-38 ratio in 12 games. His 7.3 assists per game rank seventh best in the nation.
Missouri, meanwhile, has endured a similar roller-coaster start. The Tigers opened the year 4-4 with losses to Xavier, Butler and Oklahoma in a strong nonconference slate. Since then, the Tigers have won four straight, taking down the likes of Temple and Illinois.
Junior guards Dru Smith and Mark Smith (no relation) lead Missouri in scoring, each at 11.8 points per game. Next come Jeremiah Tilmon at 9.2 and Xavier Pinson at 8.3.
Torrence Watson comes off the bench to average 4.9 points but scored 24 and set the Missouri record with eight 3-pointers to lead a 91-33 rout of Chicago State on Monday.
As a team, Missouri shoots 43.7 percent, but only 29.9 from 3-point range. The Tigers are also upside down in turnover margin with 148 assists versus 177 turnovers.
–Field Level Media