Bowers continues to improve his game after strained MCL

Laurence Bowers of Missouri argues a call in front of Scottie Wilbekin of Florida during Tuesday night’s game at Mizzou Arena.

Laurence Bowers of Missouri argues a call in front of Scottie Wilbekin of Florida during Tuesday night’s game at Mizzou Arena.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Since returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for five games, Missouri forward Laurence Bowers has been looking to regain his form offensively.

He picked a good time to break out of his slump.

Bowers ended a recent offensive funk by scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in Tuesday’s 63-60 upset of No. 5 Florida. It’s a good sign for the Tigers as they head to Lexington, Ky., to take on a desperate Kentucky squad today (8 p.m. ESPN-TV).

“I talked with coach,” Bowers said. “I just needed to play with nothing on my mind. Just worry about defense and rebounding. That was my approach.”

Bowers was averaging more than 16 points per game before straining his MCL on Jan. 8 against Alabama. But in the five games since returning, he was averaging 9.2 points per game.

Missouri coach Frank Haith described Bowers as wanting to make such an immediate impact he was putting too much pressure on himself.

Prior to Tuesday’s game, Bowers said he just had to keep his head held high and continue to work hard.

“Laurence and I spent a lot of time together talking,” Haith said. “I thought he wanted to come back immediately and have the way he was playing. And it doesn’t always work out like that. And so you’ve got to find a way to get yourself going where you don’t put so much pressure on yourself.”

If Bowers can sustain the offensive presence, it would be a welcome sight for the Tigers (19-7, 8-5 Southeastern Conference) who are on the back end of a critical three-game stretch that began with a three-point loss at Arkansas last Saturday.

“I let the game come to me and I’ve just got to continue to put in the extra work and continue to go forward,” Bowers said.

Now the Tigers face the defending national champions who are in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament after forward Nerlens Noel tore his ACL in Kentucky’s 69-52 loss Feb. 12 to Florida.

Noel, a freshman and likely lottery pick if he opts to leave school early in the NBA draft, was averaging 10.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. It was his defense though, which made him stand out. He had 106 blocked shots this season.

In its first game without Nolens, Kentucky (18-8, 9-4) lost to Tennessee 88-58.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari was critical of his team following the loss to Tennessee, saying some of his players weren’t very “coachable.”

The Wildcats, who have three freshmen and a sophomore in their starting lineup, bounced back to defeat Vanderbilt 74-70 Wednesday.

“It’s one game,” Calipari said Tuesday. “I told them after the (Tennessee) game I’ve had teams get beat up like this but I want to see how you respond, how you come back. “That’s the measure of who you are. It’s not that it doesn’t happen occasionally.”

Guard Archie Goodwin leads the Wildcats averaging 13.7 points per game. Forwards Kyle Wiltjer (11.6) and Alex Poythress are also averaging double figures (11.5) for the Wildcats.

Today’s meeting is also key in the SEC standings. Missouri would move into a tie for third place with a victory, but could drop all the way to seventh with a loss.

For Missouri it’s also a chance to pick up a quality win on the road. The Tigers are 1-6 in true road games.

“We’ve got a good Kentucky team ahead of us, and we’ve got to get ready for those guys,” Bowers said.

Notes: Kentucky leads the all-time series 4-0, with the last meeting coming in 1999 in New Orleans, a 70-53 Kentucky victory. ... Today’s game will be the focal point of ESPN’s College GameDay. The show, live from Rupp Arena, airs from 9-10 a.m. on ESPNU, then from 10-11 a.m. on ESPN. The show returns at 7 p.m. on ESPN leading up to the game. ... The Tigers are back in action Thursday at South Carolina (8 p.m. ESPN2-TV).

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