#17 Kentucky Wildcats vs Mizzou Tigers Preview, Prediction

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The South Eastern Conference opener for the #17 Kentucky Wildcats is going to be a sneaky tough match-up. As has been well-documented, UK’s achilles heel this season has been three point shooting, and now they’re going up against what is arguably the best defensive team in the SEC, the Missouri Tigers, colloquially known as Mizzou.

Of the 351 teams in Division I, the Cats entered the 71-65 loss to then #5 Ohio State averaging just 4.2 3-pt makes per game (347th), 15.3 3-pt attempts per game (341st), averaging 27.5% from 3-pt range (332nd). They did of course shoot 7-23 (30.4%) from 3 in that loss, and then 7-15 (46.7%) in the OT win over arch-rival and then #3 Louisville.

So things are moving in the right direction there. Meanwhile Mizzou entered the annual Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois yielding 57.9 ppg (2nd best in the SEC), allowing opponents to shoot 37% FG (leading the SEC) and 28% opp 3-pt shooting (4th in SEC).

In beating the Illini for the second straight year, they held their opponents to just 36% from the field, 14.3% from three. In a 91-33 thrashing of Chicago St. (that’s not a typo, CSU is literally lucky they even still have an athletics program at this point) they held the Cougars to 24.4% shooting, 11.8% from three. Get ready for plenty of clawing and scratching as the Tigers will catfight the Wildcats.

#17 Kentucky Wildcats vs Mizzou Tigers FYIs

TV: SEC Network

Spread: updated on Friday

Saturday, Jan. 4 • 2p.m. • Rupp Arena (20,500) • Lexington, Ky

Gamer Projection: 80-69 Kentucky win, KenPom projects a 68-60 win for the Wildcats

ESPN Win probability percentage: Kentucky 74.5% Mizzou 24.5%, KenPom gives them a 76% chance at beating the Tigers.

Missouri Tigers (8-4) Preview: 

Mizzou is led by Mark Smith, a player very familiar to Big Blue Nation as

1.) he led the SEC in 3pt shooting last season and

2.) UK, along with Michigan State, Ohio State and Duke made his final cut before he selected Illinois. After one absolutely, brutally awful season with the Illini, he transferred to Columbia and had a very much improved sophomore season.

Now a junior, he enters this game leading the Tigers in both scoring and rebounding. Mizzou is basically Illini SW as they have two starters and three main rotation guys who originally signed letters of intent with Illinois. Starting center Jeremiah Tilmon is another, and like Smith, he’s not producing at a level commensurate with his recruiting hype (Although Smith has been decidedly more productive and consistent than Smith thus far.)

mark smith illini basketball

Tilmon was ranked the #1 player in the state (he’s from East St. Louis, Illinois), and #43 overall in his class by 24/7, but he’s been more sizzle than steak so far. He missed the Chicago St. win with a sore foot, but is expected to play on Saturday.

Mizzou was able to beat Illinois (the #1 team, nationally, in rebounding margin +14) despite Tilmon being out for long stretches due to foul trouble. Still he’s the Tigers’ best low post scorer.

He’s also a very interesting figure, as he changed his mind about where he was going to play his college ball several times, and the first time he did so was during the 2016 Presidential Election, at the same time the shocking Electoral College results were starting to come in.

So if he wanted to announce on a slow news day, he picked the exact opposite.

jeremiah tilmon

The third member of the Mizzou triumvirate of Illini defectors/highly rated talent to come out of downstate Illinois/St. Louis suburbs is Javon Pickett, who absolutely torched the team that he once signed with in the Braggin’ Rights game. He could be an x-factor in this one.

The other key Tiger to game plan around is point guard Dru Smith, the team leader in steals and assists. 

According to Real Time RPI, Mizzou has a RPI of 117, a SoS of 153 with their strongest win being Illinois, RPI 85 and their worst loss being Charleston Southern 216. Gamer projects them to finish with a record of 15-16, with a SEC mark of 7-11 and a RPI of 65.

Thus far, the Cuonzo Martin regime at Mizzou has been somewhat similar to his stints at Cal and Tennessee- he’s succeeded more in landing top notch recruits than he has in producing wins and deep NCAA Tournament runs. 

Kentucky Wildcats Preview:

“This Saturday for us, we play a really good team in Mizzou,” said junior forward Nick Richards. “They have a really good big man and a really good point guard and we are just going to prepare for those guys this week.”

On Friday, Kentucky Assistant coach Tony Barbee described Smith as “one of the best three point shooters in the country,” and Tilmon as big and physical a presence as anyone in the country.”

You can definitely expect a very hard-nosed, physical game tomorrow, as that’s what a Martin team always brings.

“They’re (Mizzou and other SEC conference opponents) are not going to be intimidated, because they come here every year,” said Barbee.

Kentucky is led by their dynamic duo at guard, freshman Tyrese Maxey and sophomore Ashton Hagans. Maxey definitely has the highest 2020 NBA Draft stock of anybody on this squad, but there are a lot of guys who will likely hear their name called on draft night in 2021.

Maxey, Hagans and company will have their hands full as Missouri often likes to play three or four guards at a time. In terms of what makes Mizzou such a great defensive team, Maxey described them as “physical, resilient” and as “they are not going to give up, even if we go up 15.”

Every great basketball team needs a true third piece, to have a legitimate big three and it remains to be seen who that will be. Kahlil Whitney has the most athleticism of anyone on the squad and thus the most potential, but his playing time has diminished recently as his skill set development is just not coming along like many hoped it would right now.

 

On Friday, coaches and players said they were confident that his breakthrough is imminent; and that they were impressed by how Whitney was the most excited and happiest guy on the bench during the UL win.

Richards is someone else who might be that third piece, but he lacks consistency. So far, he only does it in spots. Meanwhile the other two starters, both sophomores, Immanuel Quickly and EJ Montgomery, could blossom to a level that is worthy of that role as well.

Overall, it’s a team where the defense is definitely ahead of the offense at this point in the season.

Also, in case you missed this story from the preseason, utilizing figures compiled by basketball-reference.com and spotrac.com, Calipari-coached players only (which includes Derrick Rose but not Rajon Rondo) have amassed more than $2.26 billion in career NBA contracts.

john calipari nba draft

In the 10 seasons Calipari has been the head coach at Kentucky, his players have totaled nearly $1.9 billion in NBA contracts.

What kind of money does $2.26 billion amount to?

Well, it’s more than the annual GDP of the nation of Belize. Well, I guess the entire country of Belize needs to get after it at the gym and work on their jump shot.

Prediction: Kentucky 71, Mizzou 64

Expect it to come down to the wire, with UK’s discipline on the defensive end and the power of Big Blue Nation at Rupp Arena to provide the difference.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

You can follow Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com on Twitter here and his cat on Instagram at this link.

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