No. 1 problems: UK’s recent close calls certainly don’t benefit Mizzou

Karl-Anthony Towns and the No. 1 Wildcats present Tramaine Isabell and the Tigers with their biggest challenge -- both literally and figuratively -- of the season.  

ST. LOUIS — A day after top-ranked Kentucky needed two overtimes at Texas A&M to keep alive its undefeated season, the SEC Network aired a segment listing the five games where the Wildcats are most likely to stumble.

Tuesday night’s game against Missouri was not one of them.

Oddsmakers don’t see the Tigers as much of a threat, either. On Monday afternoon, Missouri was listed as a 25- to 28-point underdog on vegasinsider.com. That’s not a point spread you often see in a conference matchup.

Such a lopsided line doesn’t seem to reflect what’s happened in the past week. Kentucky needed overtime at home to beat Mississippi and then was extended to double overtime at Texas A&M on Saturday. Missouri, meanwhile, opened conference play with an impressive overtime victory at home against LSU before losing a close game at Auburn.

While the Wildcats have stumbled lately compared to their early-season play, Missouri has improved significantly in the past few weeks even if its record remains subpar at 7-8.

But the way Missouri coach Kim Anderson sees it, Kentucky’s close calls will not help his team.

"I wish they hadn’t had a close couple of games, to be quite candid with you," Anderson said Monday on the SEC coaches conference call.

His point: When a powerhouse such as Kentucky ekes out a couple of wins, it builds even more confidence. That Kentucky has lost its unanimous No. 1 standing in the polls — two AP voters opted for Virginia — could serve as motivation, too.

Even though Kentucky has not appeared as invincible as it was being hyped just a week ago, it very well could take out some of the frustrations of actually having to play close games — the Wildcats won their first 12 by an average of 27.5 points — on an overmatched Tigers team. The Wildcats own sizable advantages in size (their starting guards are 6-foot-6 compared to 6-0 and 5-11 for Missouri), depth and pedigrees (Kentucky lists nine McDonald’s prep All-Americans on its roster, the Tigers none).

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"What we face is a team that has so many different weapons," Anderson said. "They’re very deep. They’re big. They’re long. The thing that most impresses me, other than all the things I just said, is that when they don’t play great, they still find ways to win."

Until beating LSU, the Tigers had spent much of their season finding ways to lose. Even though they fell at Auburn, Anderson said his team has "gotten a lot better" as the season has progressed.

"The LSU win gave us some confidence and hopefully, we can carry that over the rest of the season," Anderson said.

Hopefully for Anderson, that confidence will result in improved shooting. Missouri ranks 12th in the conference with a 42.8 field-goal percentage while Kentucky ranks No. 1 in the nation in limiting opponents to 31.3 percent shooting. The Wildcats also lead the SEC with 42.1 rebounds a game; Missouri is tied for 11th with 34.3. Kentucky also ranks first in blocked shots and fewest turnovers, two other categories where the Tigers are in the bottom half.

Kentucky coach John Calipari believes the tight games his team pulled out will help come March. Specifically, he pointed to the clutch free-throw shooting of Trey Lyles and the play of Devin Booker (the son of former Mizzou star Melvin Booker) against Texas A&M. Still, Calipari said he would not mind seeing his team register a blowout.

"Enough is enough," he said on Monday’s conference call. "We’ve had enough of these games now. Let’s get some games that are a little bit easier."

He did not mean to imply the Tigers would make for one. "They lost a lot from last year and you would think they wouldn’t be this confident," Calipari said. "But their big man is playing well, their wings are competing, their guards are playing great in pick-and-rolls and doing things they have to do. They’re excited about league play. You can see the fight they have, that they’re not surrendering. They don’t have it in their bones."

The way the Tigers have played lately, their effort will not be a question against Kentucky. But unfortunately for them, their talent and size will be.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.