Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The last time the Missouri men’s basketball team traveled to Kentucky, things didn’t go so well.
“Did we go there?” Missouri coach Kim Anderson joked Monday. “Did we play at Kentucky last year? You sure? You better check that out.”
Yes, coach. The Tigers lost by a whopping 49 points last year to the Wildcats, who went on to win 38 games before losing in the Final Four.
So what does Missouri do with that game tape as the Tigers (8-11, 1-5 Southeastern Conference) prepare to take on No. 20 Kentucky (15-4, 5-2) at 8 p.m. today (SEC Network).
“Bury it, for the most part,” senior Ryan Rosburg said. “But I think (also) use it as an example of what can happen if we don’t play poised and under control. I mean, we just played into the environment there and just got stomped.”
That environment being historic Rupp Arena, which seats 23,000. Anderson doesn’t anticipate it being a big factor today.
“I think 15,000, 23,000 — once it gets over a certain number it’s all loud,” he said.
Missouri has played in front of sizable crowds like 14,644 at Arizona and 12,198 on Saturday at Texas A&M.
“At this point we’ve played in so many tough environments,” Rosburg said. “… I mean, it’s loud and the fans are there. It doesn’t change a whole lot when you’ve kind of been in that environment already, so we’re just hoping that we continue to not let that affect us.”
The Tigers are still looking for their first win away from Mizzou Arena this season, though Missouri has been competitive in consecutive road games against top-20 teams.
“Texas A&M, they’re a top-10 team, we could’ve went there (and) got blown out,” point guard Terrence Phillips said. “But we went in there and we went in with a fight. This is a better team than I think most people see.”
The Tigers did put up a fight the second time they faced Kentucky last season, holding three brief leads in a 16-point loss at Mizzou Arena. Rosburg had eight points off the bench in that game, four of which came from dunks.
“It just shows that we can play with anyone, and we know that,” Rosburg said. “So you’ve just got to have that mindset coming out.”
The Wildcats are a different team than the one that went undefeated in the regular season a year ago. Kentucky lost its top seven scorers from that team, five to the NBA and two to the NBA’s Development League. Gone as well is the platoon system that saw hockey-like line changes each time the Wildcats made substitutions.
But don’t tell that to Missouri.
“I think they’re probably, unfortunately playing their best basketball of the season right now,” Anderson said.
After a surprising loss at Auburn, the only SEC team Missouri has beaten, Kentucky has rattled off convincing victories at Arkansas and against Vanderbilt.
“They seem to really be playing within their roles, and they’re defined very well,” Anderson said. “Shooters are shooting and they do a great job of getting the ball to the basket. They’re going to put a lot of pressure on us, just like South Carolina did, so we’ll have to be able to overcome that and try not to turn the ball over.”
The Tigers will have to contend with Tyler Ulis, who is averaging 15.2 points and six assists.
“He runs the team,” Phillips said. “He takes his shot when he needs to take his shot. He’s great defensively. I think he’s probably one of the best defensive guards we have in our league.”
Ulis is Kentucky’s leading returning scorer from last season, when he averaged 5.6 points per game. Senior forward Alex Poythress returned as well and averages 9.8 points per game.
Of course, it’s Kentucky, so there is new blood. Freshman Jamal Murray leads the Wildcats with 17.8 points per game, and freshman Isaiah Briscoe is averaging 9.9.
Missouri is a fairly different team from last year, too, having lost three of its four leading scorers from 2014-15 to transfer or graduation. The Tigers’ four freshmen are heavily used in the team’s young rotation, which might be shrinking. Anderson only played nine guys Saturday, meaning sophomores Tramaine Isabell and D’Angelo Allen were left on the bench.
“Probably the ideal number for me would be eight, eight or nine, but that doesn’t mean that Tramaine and D.A.” won’t play today, Anderson said. “It just depends on the matchups and the game and how practice goes the next couple of days.”
If they do see the floor, Isabell and Allen will be two of just six Tigers to make the box score this year and last year against Kentucky. Anderson believes today’s game will show how far that group has come.
“I think you appeal to their competitive nature,” he said. “… I think we’ll see what we’re made of. I do. I think we’ll see if we’ve matured as sophomores and juniors now and (Rosburg) is a senior, so we’ll see.”
Maybe there’s something to be gained from watching that tape, after all.
“Basically,” Rosburg said, “watch that game and everything we did, don’t do.”