After a hard fought game in Athens, where the Kentucky Wildcats picked up a solid W over the Georgia Bulldogs, the Cats travel to Columbia to take on the Missouri Tigers tonight at 9pm ET. Sandwiched between the big road game at Georgia and the absolutely huge home test against Florida, the Missouri game could not come at a better time for a few reasons. On top of giving the squad an easier game than the last two have been, the team also should be able to work on anything they’ve been struggling with, as the score should be lopsided form the get go.
Kentucky and Missouri have also faced each other 9 times in basketball before tonight, with Kentucky winning all of the previous match ups. Tonight should be no different. The Tigers host UK sporting a 7-19 record, including a 2-12 record in the SouthEastern Conference. This is familiar territory for the Tigers, who had a 3-15 record in the SEC last season and a 10-21 overall record, which somehow might actually end up being better than this season.
Despite their poor record, the Tigers have been in positions to win a few more games than the scoreboard shows. They have a one point overtime loss to Xavier, a 4 points loss to Ole Miss, a five point loss to Auburn, a five point loss to Georgia, a two three point losses at the hands of Texas A&M and Alabama. That list includes six of the eight losses by 5 points or less that the Tigers have suffered this season. A few shots fall for them or don’t fall for the opponent, and the Tigers could easily be 15-11 rather than 7-19. But almost’s don’t count in basketball, and certainly haven’t helped Missouri this year.
Let’s take a look at the potential starting five for Kim Anderson’s squad tonight.
#24 Kevin Puryear, Sophomore Forward, 6’7″
Kevin Puryear was named to the 2016 SEC All-Freshman Team last season, after posting the best scoring season by a Missouri freshman in 23 years. He started every game last year for Kim Anderson, and has started every game so far this season as well. Despite not being a highly touted recruit, he’s going to be the best player on Missouri’s team for the next few years most likely.
The sophomore is the team leader in points scored and rebounds on the season. He’s averaging 11.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game through this year. He’s a versatile forward who can step away from the basket and knock down a jumper, but his three point percentage isn’t great. Puryear hits 29.5% of his 3’s and 75.3% of his free throws. Last year, he scored 10 points in 19 minutes in the Tigers’ loss to the Cats.
Kentucky has essentially two ways to guard the bigs that start for Missouri. Puryear measures in at 6’7″, but he does weigh 243 pounds. He’s probably a better match up for Bam Adebayo as far as size goes. However, he plays more of a mobile, outside game than the other starting forward for the Tigers. I think UK will use a combination of both Bam and the Wenyen Gabriel/Derek Willis duo to guard Puryear. Missouri is a team that UK could shut down the other four guys on the court, and make Puryear try to beat them on his own, which won’t happen.
#1 Terrence Phillips, Sophomore Guard, 5’11”
While Kevin Puryear was one of two Missouri Tigers to start every game last season, Terrence Phillips is the other. Also a sophomore, Phillips played his high school days at Oak Hill Academy, but is a native of Orange County, California. He holds the career assist record at Oak Hill, and was one of the best freshman passers in Missouri history. His 107 total assists put him just 10 behind record holder and Tiger legend of the early 2010’s, Phil Pressey.
As you may have guessed from the assist numbers in his past, Phillips is the true point guard for this Mizzou squad.He leads the team in assists with 4.5 per game, as well as gives the team 9.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, and a team leading 1.4 steals. His assist numbers make him the third best passer in the SEC behind Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox and Florida’s Kasey Hill. He’s shooting 35.5% from behind the arc and 74.4% from the charity stripe on the season.
Last year, Phillips finished with 8 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals against Kentucky. It was a really strong outing, if you consider that he was matched up against Tyler Ulis, and that the Tigers only totaled 54 points and 28 rebounds. Phillips will match up with De’Aaron Fox tonight, who outsizes Phillips by 4 inches and around 10 pounds.
#11 K.J. Walton, Sophomore Guard, 6’3″
K.J. Walton is the third of four sophomore starters for Missouri this season. Coach Kim Anderson has used this season to build his young players to prepare for a better next couple of seasons, and K.J. Walton is right in the fold to be a part of that rebuild. Walton started 7 games last season, but has already started double that amount this season.
Walton is averaging 7.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.3 steals per game on the season. Despite playing the two-spot on the floor for the Tigers, Walton isn’t much of an outside shooter, making 5 of his only 20 three point shot attempts on the year. Walton will take the majority of his shots from cuts to the basket and straight-line drives, as has been part of the Missouri offense for years.
The sophomore will most likely be matched up defensively with Kentucky sophomore Isaiah Briscoe. Briscoe is Kentucky’s best on-ball defender, and would pair best with the Missouri player who will spend a lot of his offensive time driving to the basket. After a rough game on Saturday at Georgia, look for Briscoe to try to bounce back offensively as well and take advantage of the extra weight he has over Walton.
#25 Russell Woods, Senior Forward, 6’8″
Russell Woods is the lone senior both in the starting lineup and on the entire roster for Kim Anderson’s Missouri team. Woods is in his second season at Mizzou after playing his first two years for John A Logan Junior College in Carterville, Illinois. In high school, he attended Simeon Career Academy, where he was teammates with former Duke Blue Devil and current Milwaukee Buck, Jabari Parker.
Woods wasn’t a huge statistical contributor last season, only averaging 2.8 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. However, those numbers have increased in a starting role this season. He’s putting up 7.4 points and 4.7 rebounds this year in 22 minutes per game. The issue for Missouri is that Woods is their biggest starter at 6’8″, but he doesn’t offer a huge offensive post presence. He can’t be relied upon for a ton of offense because when he gets fouled, he only hits 58.8% of his free throws.
The Chicago native played 18 minutes against the Cats last year, but did not score and only managed one rebound against the week front line Kentucky had. As I mentioned earlier, UK could use Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis on Woods, as he isn’t as strong as Puryear in the post. But Coach Cal may use Bam here, to keep the Gabriel and Willis as perimeter defenders on Puryear instead.
#33 Cullen VanLeer, Sophomore Guard, 6’4″
Cullen VanLeer is the fourth and final sophomore starter for the Missouri Tigers this season. He started just 3 games all of last season, but tonight will mark VanLeer’s 17th start this season. VanLeer played only 17 minutes per game last season, scoring 4 points and grabbing 1.2 rebounds per game. His minutes have increased to over 25 per game with the starting role this season.
VanLeer is not afraid to let it fly from behind the arc, as 108 of his 132 shots on the season have been from 3-point land. VanLeer is averaging 5.4 points, 1.7 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game, while shooting the deep ball at a 31.5% clip. As evidenced by only staying on the perimeter, VanLeer has only taken 20 total free throws in 26 games this season, but he has made 17 of those 20. He scored 7 points, dished out an assist, and pulled down a board against UK last year.
The Pacific, Missouri native would most likely be guarded by Malik Monk in tonight’s game. His perimeter oriented game is good for the sometimes defensively-challenge Monk, and the fact that he won’t be under the basket will allow for Monk to get out on the break like he desires. The good part for UK is that VanLeer won’t be able to stop Monk in transition if they were to be in a one-on-one situation. Monk should have a solid scoring game tonight, against a team that doesn’t have the defenders to match up with his skill or athleticism.
After losing to Kentucky 88-54 last season in Rupp Arena, the Tigers could be looking to keep this game close to seek some revenge. Unfortunately for Kim Anderson and the Tiger faithful, they just don’t have a set of guys that can keep up with UK. I hate to say before a game that Kentucky is going to blow someone out, because I think it just leads to let down once the game begins, but there is absolutely no reason that Kentucky should not win this game by 20+ points. And it really shouldn’t even be that close. UK was a 16 point favorite as of last night, and I’d bet the house on it that they cover that tonight.
Go Cats. Beat Tigers.