After starting the year 9-3 and pulling off victories over No. 1 Michigan State and No. 3 Louisville during the non-conference schedule, it’s (somehow) time for Kentucky to begin SEC play.
On Saturday, the Missouri Tigers (8-4) will head to Rupp Arena to take on the No. 17 Wildcats, a game the UK coaching staff and players expect to be a major challenge.
“Got a tough opponent,” John Calipari said of Missouri during his weekly teleconference. “Coach (Cuonzo) Martin has got these guys playing. They’re defending. Made 16 3s last game. … Even the tough losses were against good teams. I mean, they played in those games too. They got behind in a couple games and had to rush back.”
Why does he expect such a challenge? The Tigers are physical, a style of play that has been successful against Kentucky to start the year.
“They’re playing physical. They’re collapsing on defense. They’ll block shots,” Calipari continued. “You’re not getting, like, open, clear looks. That’s not how they play. They’re running good stuff. They’re moving the ball. Their multiple pick-and-roll actions. Coach Martin is good now. He’s as good as they get. They play to his personality, which is grit, ‘Let’s go, we’re bringing it. We’re not afraid. Let’s do this.’ It’ll be a really hard game for us to win.”
This afternoon, UK assistant coach Tony Barbee continued to rave about Missouri’s toughness, adding on Calipari’s point that any team coached by Cuonzo Martin is going to give you fits in the physicality department.
“It’s a Cuonzo Martin-coached team,” Barbee added. “I mean, they’re going to be physical, they’re going to be tough, they’re going to be hard-nosed. Obviously, you’ve got the veteran with (Jeremiah) Tilmon back in the middle, who’s as big and as physical presence as there is not just in our conference but in the country. They’ve got really good guard play. They played a really, really hard schedule, so it’s going to be a challenge, and I think Coach has done a good job of keeping the guys attention this week in-between games.”
As a whole, the beginning of SEC play means games are about to get exponentially more difficult in terms of consistent competition. Like most of Kentucky’s conference foes, the Missouri veterans will not be afraid to walk into Rupp Arena and play with a chip on their shoulders.
“There are so many veteran teams, veteran coaches in this league that when teams go on the road, they’re not intimidated by, say, our arena or our atmosphere or our tradition because they come here every year, as opposed to nonconference play,” Barbee said. “Missouri has some really good veterans, veteran players so they’re not going to be intimidated by what we bring to the table. So, our guys, if we play how we play we’ll be fine, but we can’t be looking backward and we can’t be looking ahead. We have to be focused on what is in front of you because they’re going to come to play.”
Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey is up for the challenge, mentally preparing himself for “crazier” atmospheres when SEC opponents come to Lexington or the Wildcats hit the road.
“They just say the atmosphere is a lot crazier. Going on the road is different,” Maxey said. “But they just say you gotta stay locked in. We’re just going to be watching a lot more film, staying locked in, staying more focused and just trying to win every game. Every game counts.”
And like Calipari and Barbee both emphasized, Maxey is expecting a “physical” battle between the teams.
“They’re very physical. They play really hard,” the freshman guard continued. “They’re never going to give up. Coach said if we get up 15, get up 12 they’re not going to go away. They’re very resilient.”
Junior center Nick Richards agrees.
“It’s going to be a good game for everybody to watch.”
Tip-off is set for 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon at Rupp Arena live on the SEC Network.