Mizzou braces for Devin (son of Melvin) Booker and the Wildcats
Top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky probably wouldn’t be your first choice of opponents when you’ve lost five games in a row. But the Missouri Tigers had no say in the Southeastern Conference schedule that brings the Wildcats to Mizzou Arena tonight.
Here are five story lines to watch:
THE UNDEFEATED BANDWAGON IS BACK UP TO SPEED
Kentucky looked vulnerable when it was pushed to overtime in its first two conference games, against Mississippi and at Texas A&M. But the Wildcats picked up steam after they blew out Missouri in their next game. Since beating the Tigers 86-37 on Jan. 13, Kentucky has won by 12, 8 and 15 points to go to 19-0, 6-0 in the SEC.
The Tigers should have a little more fire in their eyes than usual as they try to atone for the embarrassment at Rupp Arena. But that won’t be anything different for Kentucky. Every opponent seems to bring something extra to the floor against the Wildcats.
"They’re just going to try to go twice as hard and go at us like there’s nothing else to lose," sophomore forward Marcus Lee told reporters. "That’s how everybody has to go throughout each game no matter who you’re playing."
A win at Mizzou Arena would make the Wildcats 20-0 and give John Calipari his best start in his six seasons at Lexington.
DEVIN BOOKER IS COMING
A freshman out of Moss Point (Miss.) High, Booker gave serious consideration to following in the footsteps of his father, former Tigers All-American Melvin Booker, before joining buddy Tyler Ulis in Lexington. The younger Booker admits he still has a soft spot for Missouri.
"I’m kind of close to the coaching staff and they recruited me since seventh-eighth grade and I still have love for Missouri because my dad went there and I’ve been up there plenty of times," Devin Booker told reporters in Lexington earlier this week.
Based on his play to this point, the Tigers missed out on a good one. Booker, a 6-foot-6 guard, doesn’t start but is second to Aaron Harrison with a 10.8 scoring average. Of course, when you shoot 3-pointers like Booker has, the points pile up quickly. Booker is shooting 50 percent on 3-pointers for the season (36 for 72) and a remarkable 59.1 percent through six conference games. He scored seven points on two shots and two free throws in the Wildcats’ rout at Lexington on Jan. 13.
Melvin Booker, the Big Eight Player of the Year in 1994 when Missouri went 14-0 in conference, told the Columbia Daily Tribune that he will be donning black and gold — and Kentucky blue — at the game.
MONTAQUE GILL-CAESAR WILL PLAY THIS TIME
The Tigers’ top freshman sat out the rout at Rupp because of back pain but returned the following game and since has returned to form. He is coming off what coach Kim Anderson called his best game, a six-for-nine shooting, 16-point performance against Arkansas.
Having Gill-Caesar means Anderson can choose not to go so much with 6-0 guards Wes Clark and Keith Shamburger, who are vertically challenged against twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Kentucky’s 6-6 sophomore guards. Look for Anderson to play the 6-6 Gill-Caesar at the same time as another 6-6 freshman, Namon Wright, to combat the Wildcats’ height advantage.
Calipari recruited Gill-Caesar and said some nice things about him this week.
"Great kid," Calipari told reporters. "Hard worker, very competitive. He will mix it up. This will change the complexion of the game. They needed one more guy to mix it up and that’s what he’ll do. Plus, he can score."
DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE
One way Calipari can sell his five-star recruits on his wholesale substituting is that by playing 20-some minutes instead of 30, they don’t have to pace themselves.
The players must be listening because Kentucky is playing some of the stingiest defense in college basketball history. The Wildcats have held 11 of 19 opponents to fewer than 50 points and 14 opponents to fewer than 55 points, which is the most in the school’s storied history and, according to coachcal.com, the most in the shot-clock era of NCAA basketball.
They are holding opponents to 31.7 percent shooting, the lowest in the nation since at least 1996-97 (the first season such numbers are available on Statspass.com, a leading statistical site). In Missouri, Kentucky will see a team that has been offensively challenged against most of its opponents. The Tigers rank last in the SEC with an average of 58.5 points a game in conference and next to last with a 41.4 field-goal percentage.
J3 LOOKS TO BOUNCE BACK
No Tigers player endured a more disappointing game at Lexington than sophomore forward Johnathan Williams III. Bothered by the taller Wildcats, he missed his first 10 shots, was held to a season-low three points on one-of-13 shooting and managed only two rebounds.
At 6-9, Williams will be at a height disadvantage no matter which frontcourt men the Wildcats put on the floor. Somehow, though, he needs to find a way to at least approach his scoring average of 12.6 points for the Tigers to have a chance.