The Kentucky Wildcats kick off SEC play this weekend against the Missouri Tigers. Coming off of a very impressive (and important) victory over Louisville last Saturday, John Calipari needs to have his guys ready to go into league play.
Before the season, it seemed Kentucky would have the opportunity for some quality wins during the conference season. However, Florida, Tennessee, and Alabama all seem to be struggling more than expected. So it is vital for the Wildcats to take care of business to avoid adding any more bad losses to their record.
A loss to Missouri would, indeed, be a bad loss at home. While the Tigers are currently a top-50 KenPom team (49th as of Thursday), their signature win for the season was probably over a struggling Illinois team, and their worst loss came to Charleston Southern a month or so ago.
Their last win was a 91-33 romp of Chicago State, who has multiple losses of 50+ points on the season. Missouri does also have an overtime loss to a top-25 Xavier team and a win over a solid Temple team, so they’ll still be a good test for the Cats to kick off conference play.
And while the Tigers’ record is nothing to brag about, their defense has quietly been great this season, as they currently rank 22nd in KenPom defensive efficiency, third in effective field-goal percentage defense, and fourth in three-point defense. Given Kentucky’s offensive struggles, this could turn into an ugly low-scoring affair that comes down to the final minutes.
The Tigers are led in scoring by both Mark Smith and Dru Smith with 11.8 points per game on the year. Mark also leads the team in rebounding (4.9), as Dru puts up the most assists (4.4) and steals (2) per game.
Dru is a transfer from Evansville (yikes) that sat out last season, and he was in many ways expected to be the savior of this year’s team. While he is obviously making large contributions, he is not exactly setting the world on fire. He does not often shoot from the outside, and he has the most turnovers on the team. However, he can do a little bit of everything and shoots very well from the free throw line (87.8%).
Junior Mark Smith, on the other hand, is a dangerous shooter. He has hit 40.5% of his three-point attempts this season, and he has attempted more than 20 more deep shots than any player on Kentucky’s roster. He is the kind of guy that can come in, get hot, and keep the game interesting.
Due to Missouri being a guard driven team, it seems like a great chance for Kentucky’s trio of Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, and Immanuel Quickley to shine defensively. And given the last performance by all three of them, in addition to Overtime Nick Richards, Big Blue Nation hopes they have broken through whatever was holding this team back.
Have the Wildcats turned the corner? Or did they just bring their best to take care of Louisville? We may find out soon as they get their first taste of SEC play Saturday at 2 p.m.