1. Familiar face
Flash back to April of 2017, and Kentucky is working on finishing a huge recruiting haul that already has seven commits. However, the Cats are in desperate need of a shooter to round out the class. Kentucky reaches out and offers scholarships to two four-star shooters, Jemarl Baker and Mark Smith. Kentucky wanted Smith Obviously, Baker eventually commits to Kentucky, leaving Mark Smith to go elsewhere. Smith eventually commits to Illinois before transferring to Missouri after one season.
Flash forward to today and that same Mark Smith is one of the best players for this Missouri team. Smith leads the team in scoring at 11.8 points per game, rebounding at 4.9 per game, and three-point shooting at 40.5% on the season. Smith plays 30 minutes per game, most on the team, and makes his living from deep as 74 of his 102 shot attempts on the year have been from three. Stopping a potential upset today starts with keeping Smith off the three-point line.
2. Defensive stalwart
After facing two of the better defensive teams in the country back to back, in Ohio State and Louisville, Kentucky faces up against a third defensive juggernaut in the Missouri Tigers this afternoon. Cuonzo Martin’s Tiger squad has the sixth best scoring defense in the country, allowing just 55.7 points per contest. The Tigers have only allowed two teams all season to score more than 63 points.
Missouri can stop teams from scoring at all levels, with the eighth best field-goal percentage defense in the country. The Tigers allow opposing teams to shoot just 36.1% from the field overall. Additionally, Mizzou’s opponents make just 26% of their three-point attempts on the year, which ranks sixth in the country.
3. To play or not to play?
The biggest and best interior player for the Missouri Tigers is Jeremiah Tilmon. Standing at 6’10” and 260 pounds, the junior forward is averaging 9.2 points and 4.4 rebounds on the year, but his numbers have been hampered by playing minimal minutes over the last few weeks dealing with a foot injury. Tilmon missed Missouri’s last game and is listed as questionable for this afternoon. Head Coach Cuonzo Martin seemed to suggest yesterday that Tilmon would give it a go today, but noted that the Tigers were taking it day by day.
If Tilmon isn’t able to play today, it puts extra pressure on the two remaining contributing bigs on the roster for Missouri. Junior forward Mitchell Smith is 6’10”-221 pounds and starts at the four, but averages just 4 points and 3.7 rebounds on the year. Starting in place of Tilmon would be 6’10”-240 pound senior Nikko Reed, who is only scoring 1.7 points and grabbing 1.9 rebounds per contest.
4. Struggles from deep
Outside of the knock-down shooting of Mark Smith (40.5% on the year), the Tigers generally struggle from three-point land as a team. Missouri shoots 29.9% from three as a team, which ranks just 308th in the country. Fellow starting guard Dru Smith has knocked down 8 of his 23 attempts on the year for 34.8%, and coming off the bench is Torrence Watson who has hit 17 of 59 threes on the season for 28.8%. Watson’s is a volume shooter from three, as he’s only attempted nine two-point field goals all season.
Outside of those three, no one on the team has made more than six threes on the entire season. Just one contributing player outside of those three makes more than 24% of his threes, and that’s Javon Pickett, who plays 25 minutes per game off the bench. Pickett has hit 6 of his 18 attempted treys this year, for 33.3%.
5. Tough start through non-conference
The Missouri Tigers bring an 8-4 record into today’s game at Rupp Arena, but have rattled off four straight wins since starting the season 4-4. The best win for Cuonzo Martin’s squad is a neutral floor win over Illinois, who is just 9-5 now. The four losses haven’t been ideal for Missouri, but two of them don’t look terrible on their résumé thus far. An early loss at Xavier in overtime, as well as a loss to now No.11 Butler, are both quality losses.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, the other two losses are bad losses. A neutral court loss to Oklahoma and a loss to Charleston Southern at home both will be bad losses when it comes time for NCAA Tournament bubble talk. Some may say that 8-4 is what Kentucky would be if they hadn’t beat Louisville a week ago, but the difference here is the strength of schedule. Kentucky has the 28th ranked SOS thus far, which will improve as they play some solid teams in the SEC, while Missouri has just the 46th ranked SOS.
Go Cats. Beat Tigers.