Afternoon, folks. I’m in Greenville, South Carolina covering my first ever basketball tournament for KSR. I think we’re all hoping for a long weekend and it starts today as Kentucky kicks off its postseason schedule. Let’s get right into it.
The No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats received a double-bye for the SEC Tournament this year and will face the five-seeded Missouri Tigers in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament today at 2:30 p.m. on the SEC Network. The Wildcats snuck in as the four seed after beating the Georgia Bulldogs in its final regular season game of the year and should be well-rested against a Missouri team the Cats already beat back on Jan. 23 by a score of 52-41. It was the lowest point total Missouri has posted all season long.
Heading into today’s matchup, let’s see if we can get a better idea of who this Missouri team is and how it will fair against our Cats.
The Tigers come in with an overall record of 22-9 and a conference record of 10-6, good enough for the fifth-seed and just a game below the Wildcats. Despite the Tigers finishing with a considerably worse record (UK finished 24-6), some key wins over an elite Mississippi State team on the road ranked in the top five along with another win against a top-20 team in the Texas A&M Aggies have both come in the last month. With that, SEC Network currently has them projected as a five-seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, which is also where they project the Cats to be seeded.
Keep in mind, Kentucky was mopped by Mississippi State in early January and lost both games against the Aggies. But Kentucky has won seven of its last eight games while playing some of the best defensive basketball I’ve seen from them all season. The Tigers come in riding a three-game winning streak but are also coming into this game with less than 24 hours rest.
Missouri is led by 6-foot-1 senior guard, Sophie Cunningham. The Missouri native is averaging over 17 points and six rebounds per game while shooting over 47 percent from the field and slightly over 40 percent from three. She’s an incredibly versatile scorer who can give even the best defenses fits with her combination of size and scoring ability. Kentucky’s defense has been unbelievably stout that last few games, but Cunningham is a matchup nightmare for the undersized Kentucky frontcourt. It’ll be up to freshman star Rhyne Howard to try and give her fits throughout the game. It also wouldn’t surprise me to see Taylor Murray take a crack at defending her, too, or even a zone defense to stop penetration and hopefully limit her to the perimeter.
In the first matchup against the Cats, Cunningham was the only Missouri player to score in double-figures as she went for 17 points on 5-12 shooting (3-7 from three) while having to play all 40 minutes. She is without a doubt the main source of offense for her team, but she turns the ball over more than almost any player in the entire country (right at 3.0 turnovers per game). Kentucky – who ranks second in the SEC in forced turnovers per game – should have a field day as Cunningham is forced into creating shots. The Cats forced her into four miscues in the first matchup.
The Tigers have several shooters that can space the floor in Amber Smith (35.8 percent from three), Lauren Aldridge (40.5 percent), and Hannah Schuchts (41.0 percent), but they rely almost exclusively on Cunningham to put up points. Her usage rate of 26.6 percent ranks her in the 90th percentile among all NCAA players. She’s scored more than 20 points in 14 games this season, however, she only needed 13 points against an eight-win Florida team on Thursday as Missouri glided to a 31-point win. Florida obviously isn’t anywhere near as good as Kentucky, but I should note that it was only the sixth game of the year that Cunningham didn’t play at least 30 minutes. So she’ll likely be a bit more rested despite playing in a back-to-back.
One advantage Missouri has is that Kentucky is the worst rebounding team in the SEC, but the Tigers aren’t much better – ranking ninth out of 14 SEC teams in rebounds per game. The game likely won’t be won on the boards, however, and should be decided in transition. The Tigers don’t prefer to run like Kentucky does. They elect to try and slow things down and keep the number of possessions per game to a minimum. The Cats will do everything they can to press the backcourt and force the game into an up-and-down marathon. The Tigers have been prone to foul trouble, as well, and a fast pace could lead to frustration fouls and, ideally, poor passing decisions. Missouri coughed the ball up 20 times during the matchup in Lexington.
Outside of Cunningham, this just isn’t a good matchup for Missouri. The best chance the Tigers have is to slow the game down to a snail’s pace and make Kentucky beat them in the halfcourt, which the Wildcats have struggled to do throughout the year. Kentucky is at it’s best when Murray is creating havoc on ball-handlers while Howard and Maci Morris are popping open for quick looks. Howard and Morris (and even Murray, really) are good enough scorers on their own to win more often than not in isolation situations, but that won’t be sustainable for a full 40 minutes.
If Kentucky can play the game they want to play – pushing the pace, pressing in the full-court, running the offense through Morris/Howard – then the Cats should be able to handle this game with ease as they did in Lexington. But if the game slows down and Kentucky is forced to run its offense mainly in the halfcourt, it could create an opportunity for the Tigers to break the flow of what has made Kentucky such a pesky team all season.
Remember, 2:30 p.m. EST on SEC Network. Don’t miss it.
(Statistics pulled from Her Hoop Stats)