Kentucky is the talk of college basketball after dropping Tennessee by 17 points over the weekend, but only a few days before that it lost at home to LSU. Even then, the Wildcats still have to go to Tennessee, which could easily go the opposite way of the first meeting. Missouri doesn’t look like a possible upset on paper, but it already pushed LSU to the brink a few weeks ago so it at least has a top performance hiding somewhere.
The problem is that the Tigers rank near the bottom of the SEC charts in efficiency on both ends of the cOurt, while the Wildcats are near the top, including No. 1 in defense. Missouri has had issues scoring all season, from turning the ball over on 22.6% of possessions in Conference play to having an effective field-goal percentage below 50. That’ll be the main issue for Missouri in this Game as it’s had some brutal offensive outings, failing to surpass 60 points in a recent home loss to Texas A&M.
The biggest positive for the Tigers is that they at least have some size to deal with PJ Washington (14.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and Reid Travis (11.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg) down low. Jeremiah Tilmon may be Missouri’s most important player, scoring at least 15 points in Four of his last six Games, but he can’t get into foul trouble, which could easily be an issue. If he can stay in the Game, that’d be huge, otherwise Reed Nikko and Mitchell Smith will need to play more than Missouri wants. The same goes for Kevin Puryear, though he’s less important offensively. Washington may give up size, but he’s coasted through the SEC with at least 20 points in seven of the last eight Games and that turnaround has made UK a complete team with a much better offense.
If Washington gets Tilmon into foul trouble, Missouri will likely struggle to cover because the rest of the offensive production is limited outside of Jordan Geist (14.2 ppg). To help matters, second-leading scorer Mark Smith (12.1 ppg) returned to the lineup over the weekend and he could be a big boost with a 47.1% mark from deep. Kentucky has excellent three-point defense, but having another shooter never hurts and that’ll only help freshman Xavier Pinson on the perimeter as he’s steadily improved since Smith went down.
Of course, there’s still a defensive issue for Missouri and while it has good three-point defense, it’s been roasted in almost every other area, including allowing 53.7% from inside the arc in Conference play. That’s where Washington and Travis can takeover, but also point guard Ashton Hagans, who doesn’t really shoot from distance. That still doesn’t include Keldon Johnson (14.2 ppg) and Tyler Herro (13.4 ppg), both of whom can drop 20 points in any Game. The return of Mark Smith helps defensively for Missouri, but again, it’s not like the defense was elite when he was in the lineup.
There’s a chance Kentucky looks past this Game coming off the huge win against Tennessee, but that’s a hard thing to bet against. Still, the Cats have had some shaky road results, winning by Four at Mississippi State, being down by double digits at Florida and beating Auburn by just two. But for those banking on Missouri, it’s hard to put trust in Tilmon, a guy that’s battled foul trouble more often than not in his first two years.
Our Pick – Kentucky by 16