Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The first time the Missouri basketball team faced Kentucky under Kim Anderson, the Wildcats overwhelmed the Tigers, 86-37. So what does Missouri have to do to win the second time around?
“We’re going to have to play almost a perfect game,” Anderson said. “Hopefully we’ll do that. Certainly we’re not going to be the favorites. I know that. You know what, that’s why you play. You get the chance to play the best.”
The Tigers get their second shot at No. 1 Kentucky at 8 p.m. today (ESPN) at Mizzou Arena. Do they really have to be perfect to win?
“It depends on how you look at perfect,” senior Missouri guard Keith Shamburger said. “Perfect isn’t just making every shot. Perfect is knowing what they’re doing. What they’re capable of doing. Knowing who you’re guarding and what they can do. Just getting rebounds, playing hard. That’s perfect. Playing hard and knowing the other team’s roles, and just stopping them from what they want to do. That’s a perfect game, and I do think we’ll have to do that to stop them.”
There are a few differences between today’s game and the previous matchup, played just 16 days ago, that could make things easier on the Tigers. For one, this one’s at home, not at the overwhelming environment that is Rupp Arena.
“It helps us out a lot, because we feed off the crowd,” Shamburger said. “… Our little freshmen love the fans here, and our fans love our little freshmen here, so it’ll all be good for everybody. I think it’ll be a good game. I don’t think it’ll be nothing like two weeks ago.”
And unlikley that Jan. 13 matchup, Missouri will have the help of their highest-scoring little freshman. Montaque Gill-Caesar, who missed four games with a back injury, has returned to court and is coming off a strong 16-point performance in Missouri’s 61-60 loss to Arkansas on Saturday.
“He just kind of let things come to him, and that’s what he has to do,” Anderson said of Gill-Caesar, who is averaging 10.8 points per game. “He’s not a guy that’s going to take the ball and dribble between his legs, go behind his back and drive it to the hole. He can drive it to the hole, a straight-line guy, but he really did a good job of playing within himself.”
Without Gill-Caesar, Missouri entered halftime down 44-18 to Kentucky in their first meeting. The Tigers know they can’t afford to give the Wildcats a big lead early.
“You won’t get out of the hole once you get into a hole with Kentucky,” Shamburger said. “… We got punched in our mouth the first two minutes, and this time we’re just going to have to go out there and throw the first punch, and we’re just going to have to keep playing hard to see where it gets us.”
Missouri shot just 27.1 percent from the floor and missed 17 of its 18 3-point attempts in the loss to Kentucky. The Tigers’ 37 points were their fewest in a single game since 1959.
“We didn’t play nothing like ourselves,” Shamburger said. “We let them keep us almost out from the basket the whole game. We didn’t attack, really. It looked like we didn’t have any fight.”
That game was the second in the Tigers’ current five-game losing streak. All the losses have come in conference play. Missouri looked like it might snap its losing streak Saturday but came up just short against 16-4 Arkansas.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, are undefeated and have their conference games by an average of 23.5 points after starting Southeastern Conference play with two overtime victories.
The star-studded Wildcats have 10 players averaging 10 or more minutes per game, though junior forward Alex Poythress is out for the year with a torn ACL.
“They’re probably one of the deepest I’ve ever seen,” Anderson said. “The thing they do is, they just keep running people at you. … The biggest compliment I can give them is they figure out how to win when they don’t play well.”
That wasn’t a problem 16 days ago. The Wildcats shot 48.2 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent from 3-point range in a dominating display of what makes them the early favorite for a national title.
Kentucky shot down Johnathan Williams III, Missouri’s leading scorer, that game. The sophomore shot 1-of-13 from the floor, corralled just two rebounds and struggled to get anything going offensively near the rim.
“When you drive in the lane, there’s going to be somebody standing there, and he’s going to be taller than you,” Anderson said. “So you’ve got to be aware. That doesn’t mean you don’t attack. That doesn’t mean you don’t keep playing hard. I think you’ve just got to pick your spots better.”
Williams said he has to account for Kentucky’s size by using techniques like the shot fake and the pullup jumper to score to score.
Though they’ve gone 0-3, Williams believes Missouri has improved since the Kentucky loss.
“I think we’ve grown as a team,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten a little bit more closer. Once you get knocked down a couple times, you just learn how to lean on each other more and care for each other a lot more.”