Fresh off the statement win over Tennessee this past weekend, the Wildcats will hit the road to play a familiar foe. It’s been a rough second season in Columbia for Cuonzo Martin, but the Tigers do have some young talent on the roster. The Tigers are out of the running for an NCAA Tournament bid, but they’ll be looking to play spoiler as they continue to get their young players reps.
Kentucky has performed very well all season on the road and that is shown by their 6-1 record in true road games. After two monstrous home games against the other SEC championship contenders, a potential hangover game could be looming for the Wildcats in the late night tip. Can UK avoid a slip up?
Nuts and Bolts
Following a short playing career in the NBA, Cuonzo Martin returned to his alma mater to serve in an assistant role under both Gene Keady and Matt Painter at Purdue. After a successful three-year head coaching run at Missouri State that included a regular season Missouri Valley Conference title and two postseason appearances, Tennessee came calling following the dismissal of Bruce Pearl.
Martin was in Knoxville for three seasons and collected 63 wins with a Sweet 16 appearance and a top-10 KenPom finish in 2014. However, he was never fully embraced by the Rocky Top faithful and made the move to Berkeley to run the Cal program. There he would have a similar run as the one at Tennessee that included 62 wins and once NCAA Tournament appearance. After three years, he was on the move again.
Martin took the head coaching position at Mizzou prior to the 2017-2018 season and immediately made a splash. The Tigers landed the services of Michael Porter Jr. and his brother Jontay. They were immediately considered an SEC contender. However, injuries plagued the team all year and the Tigers would bow out in the Round of 64.
In year two it has been a total rebuild that is clearly shown in Mizzou’s 12-12 overall record. The Tigers were hit with a blow in the preseason when Jontay Porter was ruled out for the season. The young team has gotten exposed in SEC play and now they are playing for the future. This year, the shorthanded Tigers live and die by the three-point shot. They have struggled to find consistency at point guard and their bigs have been unable to protect the paint. It’s been another long season for this program. This has been an unfortunate regular occurrence for the Tigers since joining the SEC.
This will be the 13th meeting between the two programs with Kentucky leading the all-time series by a count of 11-1. Since joining the SEC, Mizzou is 1-7 against Kentucky with the last five losses occurring by double-digits. Overall, Cuonzo Martin is 2-5 against Kentucky during his head coaching career.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is an 11.5 point favorite with a total of 135. That’s a projected final score around 73-62. On the season, Kentucky is 14-10-1 against the spread while Missouri is 9-12-3. In SEC play, Mizzou is 4-7-1 against the number while UK is 7-4-1. UK is 5-1-1 against the spread in true road games this season. Mizzou is 3-2-1 against the number as a home dog this season.
Last year graduate transfer Kassius Robertson did a lot for the Tigers. The former Canisius guard logged a ton of minutes and was Mizzou’s go-to-guy when Michael Porter Jr. was ruled out of the lineup. His departure has unexpectedly set Mizzou back this season. This was not something many were anticipating.
Mizzou has used multiple players to fill the point guard spot and it’s been a roller coaster to say the least. In SEC play, the Tigers rank 14th in turnover percentage and 11th in assist rate. Mizzou is coughing the rock up on nearly a quarter of their possessions and that has made this one of the most inefficient offenses in the SEC.
The main weapon in the backcourt is senior Jordan Geist and the former junior college guard is giving this program everything he has. The guard starred at Ranger College playing for Billy Gillispie before making the switch to Division I. In 2018-2019, he’s having a career year in his third season in Columbia. Geist leads the team in minutes, three-pointers made, and free throws attempted. He’s putting up over 14 points per game to go along with 4.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists. He won’t back down from the moment.
Playing alongside Geist in the backcourt is true freshman Javon Pickett and the rookie from the Chicago area was a top-300 recruit out of high school. He’s the program’s future at the two-spot, but this has been a year full of growing pains. The rookie is shooting under 40 percent from the field and has more turnovers than assists.
On the wing, former UK recruiting target and Illinois transfer Mark Smith has been this team’s outside specialist. The Illinois native has been an excellent floor spacer for the Tigers shown by having 104 shots from three and only 54 from two-point range. The Tigers were without Smith for six games in SEC play and that desperately costed UM. The wing ranks 20th in the nation in three-point shooting percentage (.471) and will need to be on the floor for Mizzou to have a fighting chance.
Off the bench, two more freshmen are used for the Tigers. Xavier Pinson and Torrence Watson have combined to attempt over 130 three-pointers and have played a lot this season. Pinson might actually be Mizzou’s best option at point while Watson is an energy player at this stage of his career.
Mizzou has a gutsy senior surrounded by a bunch of young pieces who are cutting their teeth in power conference basketball. It’s no surprise to see this team going through obvious growing pains this season.
In October, sophomore Jontay Porter was lost for the season after tearing both his ACL and MCL in a scrimmage. It totally changed the outlook for this year’s team and made Mizzou play without a potential lottery pick and All-SEC performer. With it, Mizzou put a lot more pressure on sophomore five-man Jeremiah Tilmon.
The 6-foot-10 and 252-pound sophomore is a large body and a key cog to Mizzou’s post offense. The East St. Louis native is shooting 57.1 percent from the field on his way to 10.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. On the defensive end, however, he has struggled to protect the paint. Foul trouble has been an issue for Tilmon his entire career and he’s fouled out of eight games this season. He just cannot stay on the floor.
Next to Tilmon, Kevin Puryear has stepped into a starting role for the loss of Jontay Porter. The undersized big provides Mizzou with solid rebounding but not much else. Off the bench, Reed Nikko has been used a lot due to Tilmon’s foul trouble issues and he brings size to the lineup (6-foot-10, 250 pounds).
Keys to Victory
- Kentucky will enter Mizzou Arena the much more talented and accomplished team. The Tigers are well on their way to a losing season while the Wildcats are playing for a one-seed. From the jump, Kentucky must bring the juice. Mizzou is a wounded team who could be taken out early with a fast start. Facing a team that can get hot from three, you don’t want to let this kind of underdog hang around.
- On the defensive end, Mizzou struggles to protect the paint. Opponents are shooting 51 percent from two-point range against the Tigers and they have no shot blockers to contest action at the basket. It should be a great opportunity for UK’s bigs. For Reid Travis, this could be a game where he could get multiple buckets on the block and leads the team in scoring.
- One way for Kentucky to get out to a healthy early lead would be to force some turnovers. Mizzou has major point guard issues and they’ve been turning the ball over at an alarming rate. Ashton Hagans could have a big day forcing havoc on defense and creating fast break opportunities for UK’s offense.
- Both Kentucky and Mizzou’s offense prefer to play at a slower pace. So this could be a low scoring affair. Don’t be surprised if UK limits their seventh conference foe to 55 points or less.
Back in 2012, things were looking up in the Show Me State when Mizzou announced they were leaving the Big XII for the SEC. The fans, as expected, seemed pretty excited and that joy was not just present in gridiron expectations. The Tigers were fresh off a 30-5 season in 2012 with a Big XII tournament championship. Expectations were very high with the Tigers having “faith in Haith”.
Well, Mizzou’s basketball run in the league has been about as ugly as that song and music video. The Tigers are are 41-79 in SEC play since joining the conference with only two NCAA Tournament appearances and zero tournament wins. Mizzou is on their third head coach since realignment and just can’t seem to get out of their own way on the hardwood.
Here’s to hoping this once proud program can return to respectability in basketball.