1. Offensive backcourt
It seems that on a nightly basis in the SEC this season, Kentucky is facing a really solid backcourt, and Missouri is no different on that front. The starting backcourt for Missouri ranks fourth offensively in the Southeastern Conference, combining for 28.1 points per game. That number is negatively impacted by Missouri’s style of play, which is a slower pace and less threes attempted than a lot of other SEC schools, or else Missouri would probably be higher on the list. Starting at point guard is junior Xavier Pinson, standing at 6’2″ and 170 pounds. Pinson leads the team in both scoring, at 15.1 points, and passing, at 3.4 assists.
At the two-guard is 6’3″ – 203 pound senior Dru Smith, who averages 13 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists. Smith leads the team and is second in the SEC with 1.8 steals per game. The two guards are both solid scorers from everywhere on the floor. Pinson shoots 34.3% from three, while Smith leads the team at 38%. Both rank in the top 10 in the SEC in free throw shooting, with Pinson converting 81.3% and Smith hitting 84.8% on the season. Both guards are playing less than 29 minutes per game, so their scoring is efficient as well in that time period.
2. One of the SEC’s best
Not only will the guards on the perimeter draw some defensive focus for Kentucky tonight, but Missouri also has one of the better bigs in the SEC. Senior Jeremiah Tilmon is a 6’10” – 260 pound four year starter at Missouri. Tilmon is currently averaging 13.9 points per game, good for second on the team, and leads the team in both rebounding and blocked shots. His 8.1 rebounds per game puts him third in the conference rankings, while his 1.4 blocks per game rank him eighth in the conference.
Keeping Tilmon off the glass will be a struggle for Kentucky tonight, as they give up a lot of offensive rebounds in general. Tilmon pulls down the third most offensive rebounds in the Southeastern Conference, at 3.2 per game. While Tilmon doesn’t have much of a perimeter game, with only four attempted threes his entire career and a season free-throw percentage of 50%, his inside game is extremely efficient. Shooting 66.1% from the floor, Tilmon has the best field goal percentage in the SEC and ranks 7th nationally. Nearly every statistical category is a career high for Tilmon this season, seeing career bests in scoring, rebounding, passing, shooting, blocked shots, and steals.
3. Familiar name
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. Sounds similar to a few seasons recently, doesn’t it? Kentucky reaches out and offers scholarships to two four-star shooters, Jemarl Baker and Mark Smith. It was thought that Kentucky wanted Smith more so than Baker at the time. Obviously, Baker eventually commits to Kentucky, leaving Mark Smith to go elsewhere. Baker spent two seasons at Kentucky before leaving for Arizona, while Smith eventually committed to Illinois before transferring to Missouri after one season.
Since then, Smith has had a very solid career for the Tigers, averaging double-digit scoring in each of his three seasons, all in the starting lineup. This season, Smith is averaging 10.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, and one assist in just over 30 minutes per game. One of the better shooters on the team, Smith shoots near 33% from three, and is tied for the most makes from three on the team. Smith looks to shoot the three almost exclusively, as he’s taken 71 threes, compared to just 38 twos on the season. The senior hits 83% of his free throws as well.
4. How’ve they been?
In the preseason polls, the Missouri Tigers were picked to finish tenth in the Southeastern Conference, but Cuonzo Martin has them performing at a level much higher than many thought was possible going into the season. Starting in the non-conference portion of the season and continuing into conference play with a national ranking of No. 18 in the AP Poll, Missouri has been exceeding expectations all year long. A non-conference slate that was ranked 28th in the country, the Tigers knocked off #21 Oregon and #6 Illinois, to go along with wins over Oral Roberts, Wichita State, Liberty, and Bradley, bringing a perfect 6-0 record into the SEC. To add to the non-conference list, Missouri played TCU in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge this past weekend and picked up another solid win.
In conference play, Missouri has continued to play well, despite the preseason predictions of them finishing near the bottom of the ladder. The Tigers have a 4-3 conference record, but one of their wins does include beating #6 Tennessee in Knoxville. They also dropped their first game of the season when Tennessee came to Missouri, accounting for the Tigers’ only loss at home all season. The other two losses in SEC play were at Mississippi State and at Auburn a week ago. Missouri has a huge game against Alabama on Saturday, so tonight’s game could be a bit of a trap game, although the allure of knocking off Kentucky may quell that notion.
5. All-time series
Of all the teams in the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky has played against Missouri the least amount of times in the overall series. Out of the 14 total times the two teams have faced each other, Kentucky holds a 13-1 record. The two teams faced four times before Missouri was a part of the SEC, with the Wildcats taking all four, leaving a 9-1 conference record over the Tigers. The Wildcats have won the last three match ups, with the only all-time loss to Missouri coming in 2018 by the score of 69-60.
Tonight will be only the fourth time that Kentucky plays Missouri in a game where the Wildcats aren’t ranked in any of the polls. On the flip side, tonight will be the first time in the all-time series that Missouri will be ranked, with the Tigers currently sitting at No. 18 in the AP Top 25. Head Coach Cuonzo Martin has the Tigers playing very well, but the spread still just puts Missouri at a 4.5 point favorite. Missouri is still building that tournament résumé leading up to Selection Sunday, and a loss at home to this Kentucky team would be a loss that could drop them a seed line.
Go Cats. Beat Tigers.