Fresh off last night’s desperately needed victory over Vanderbilt, Kentucky will play host to Missouri on Saturday during ESPN’s College Gameday. Historically speaking, Missouri hasn’t exactly excelled against Kentucky. In fact, they’ve been downright awful against the Cats, owning an 0-4 lifetime record with a near 14-point average margin of defeat to boot. History certainly hasn’t been kind to Mizzou, but this year looks to be different as Frank Haith’s Tigers enter Saturday’s contest with a renewed sense of confidence after their comeback victory over 5th ranked Florida. There’s no denying the importance of this game for both sides; Missouri needs to notch another quality win to boost their NCAA seeding while Kentucky so desperately needs a victory to assure themselves a tournament spot. Missouri will certainly present a number of challenges for a Nerlens-less Kentucky, but their successes and failures start with one player in particular.
Phil Pressey is where Missouri’s offense begins. He may only be the Tigers’ third leading scorer (11.8 ppg), but his greatest asset is the ability to set up teammates for success. On the season, he’s averaging nearly seven assists per game, which is gravely concerning for Kentucky given our ability, or lack there of, to prevent guards from penetrating the lane. If he’s able to run rampant against Kentucky’s back-court, this game could potentially turn ugly, however, Pressey isn’t without his faults. Through his team’s 26 contests, the Tiger point guard coughs up the ball 3.7 times per game, which for lack of a better term, isn’t elite. He also struggles to shoot efficiently from the field, connecting on 41% of twos and 29.7% of threes. The game plan for Pressey is simple; limit penetration and pressure his shots.
According to Kenpom.com, Missouri, as a team, ranks 16th overall in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. Even though Haith’s squad hovers around average in three of basketball’s “Four Factors,” their high level of efficiency comes via the offensive rebound. In fact, the Tigers rank 9th nationally in offensive rebound percentage, pulling down nearly 40% of misses. While seven players average over three rebounds per game, two individuals stand above the rest; Lawrence Bowers and UConn transfer, Alex Oriakhi. This dynamic rebounding duo combines for 5.1 offensive boards per game. Much like containing guard penetration, Kentucky has also struggled at times in preventing opponents from having their way on the offensive glass. This issue certainly factored in against Duke, Notre Dame, and Texas A&M, and it could potentially cost us against Mizzou as well. The Tigers may only shoot 45% from the field, but second chance opportunities from Bowers and Oriakhi, whom shoot over 55% from the interior, keep their offense alive.
While the Tiger offense is among the nation’s best, their defense isn’t nearly as strong. Currently, they’re ranked 54th nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency according to Kenpom.com. Mizzou certainly won’t amaze anyone with their ability to force turnovers (ranked 293rd nationally) or swat opposing shots (ranked 196th), but they’ve remained effective nonetheless. While the lack of traditional defensive stats keep the Tigers down in overall efficiency, they’re still effective on that end of the floor, due largely to defensive rebounds. At the moment, Mizzou is ranked 22nd nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, obtaining 72.8% of potential boards. And much like their offense, individual rebounding is near evenly distributed. However, Alex Oriakhi and Earnest Ross hit the defensive glass much harder than their teammates, respectively pulling down 5.3 and 3.7 per game. So much of Frank Haith’s defensive plan involves limiting opponents’ second chance shots, so it’ll be paramount to hit the offensive glass come Saturday. It may be a tall order given our lack of depth and tendency to foul, but if the Cats can snatch a high percentage of offensive boards, we’ll be in position to come out victorious.
There’s no denying the importance of Saturday’s game. Win, and we’re almost assured an NCAA Tournament bid (assuming we don’t whiff against any other un-ranked opponent), lose, and we’ll either have to beat Florida in Rupp or make a deep SEC Tournament run. In order to pull out this victory, Kentucky needs to force Phil Pressey into pressure situations and keep the Tigers, as a team, off the offensive and defensive glass. If the Cats can accomplish these tasks in an emotionally charged Rupp Arena, we’ll be in good position to come out victorious, if not, we could be in a world of trouble. In pressure packed situations like these, teams have different response mechanisms. Some come out and grab adversity by the proverbial horns while others, unfortunately, sit back and let the situation get the better of them. While no one knows which of the above categories Kentucky will fall into come Saturday, one thing’s definite, we won’t come out like Truman the Tiger.