Missouri strives to play ‘near-perfect game’ against Kentucky
No. 11 Kentucky is on a collision course this Saturday with No. 13 Florida in a battle for first place in the Southeastern Conference. But first, the Wildcats must win at lowly Missouri on Tuesday night at Columbia, Mo.
Kentucky is 22-5, 12-2 in the SEC while Missouri is 7-19, 2-12. But Wildcats coach John Calipari is the spinning the Tigers’ cup as being half-full.
“I always want to look and watch what coaches are doing if their team is struggling a little bit,” Calipari said. “Do you keep them together? Do they keep growing? Do they keep trying? Do they stay positive? That’s what he’s (Missouri coach Kim Anderson) doing. What I’m seeing is Missouri is playing their best basketball of the season.
“I know what their record is so I expected to see something different when I started watching tape,” Calipari said. “But I fully expect that they’re going to come and play. You know what they do, they shoot the ball better than you give them credit for. They’re dangerous because they can make perimeter shots.”
For his part, Anderson countered that, “We have to play a near-perfect game,” to beat Kentucky.
Missouri opened with nine straight SEC losses, but is 2-3 over the last few weeks. Most notable, both conference wins came in Columbia — an 83-78 victory over Arkansas and a shocking 72-52 rout of Vanderbilt.
“I imagine we’re going to walk into an arena that’s going to have a ton of people in it, and a blackout or whatever they’re doing,” Calipari said. “It’s another game for us to figure out who we are.”
In Missouri’s two league wins, the Tigers shot 51 percent against Arkansas and 41 percent against Vanderbilt. Their season average is 39.7.
One big key was free-throwing shooting. In the two wins, the Tigers were 40-for-51 (78.4 percent). Take away those games and Missouri is shooting 66.9 percent.
Junior forward Jordan Barnett scored 40 points in both wins and averages 12.5 on the season. Sophomore forward Kevin Puryear averaged 14 points and eight rebounds in the wins, both a notch above his season averages.
Kentucky, meantime, is trying to steer its own ship back on course. After losing three of four games, the Wildcats have won four in a row but only one by a comfortable margin. On Saturday, Kentucky needed to make 17 straight free throws to hold off Georgia 82-77.
“You better be ready to play harder than they play, and you better be ready to take things personal, because they are,” Calipari said. “We gotta worry about us. Let’s be at our best, let’s understand what we’re trying to do. We’re still trying different things. The reboot moves on.”
Kentucky is led by freshman guard Malik Monk at 21.4 points per game. Next comes freshman guard De’Aaron Fox at, 15.6, sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe (13.6) and freshman forward Bam Adebayo (12.7).
“We’re consistently trying to figure things out,” Calipari said. “We’re watching tape this morning with the team and showed them some things that were good and some of the stuff that wasn’t good, and where we have to improve. We’re using every day to get better.
“There are times I think we’ve figured it out, and then there are other times I look and I’m like, ‘We haven’t,'” Calipari said. “But we’re one of those teams with an enormous upside, even now.”