Kentucky’s size poses stiff test for Missouri

Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein pulls down a rebound next to Georgia’s Marcus Thornton during the first half of Saturday’s game in Lexington, Ky.

Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein pulls down a rebound next to Georgia’s Marcus Thornton during the first half of Saturday’s game in Lexington, Ky. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — You can call them skyscrapers. You can call them trees in a forest. Or you can call them the Kentucky Wildcats.

There’s a multitude of ways you could describe the nation’s tallest team. With an average height of 79.3 inches — or 6-foot-7 with a smidge or two to spare — No. 11 Kentucky’s roster of towering athletes presents the Missouri Tigers (16-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) with maybe their toughest challenge of the season.

“They’ve got great length,” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said Thursday afternoon before Kentucky (15-5, 5-2 SEC) comes to town for a noon Saturday tip-off on CBS. “… They’re long all over the place, there’s no question. You’ve got to contend with that on both ends of the court.”

A quick glance at Kentucky’s projected starting lineup tells the story.

The Wildcats’ frontcourt stands an imposing 7-foot-0 (sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein) and 6-foot-9 (freshman Julius Randle). The backcourt isn’t all that far off, as three freshmen — James Young, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison — all measure 6-foot-6.

The sort of size has provided Kentucky a significant advantage in the rebounding department. The Wildcats rank fifth in the nation by pulling down 42.4 rebounds per game, led by Randle’s SEC-best 10.2. An even more impressive statistic deals with their work on the offensive glass. Kentucky ranks first in the country by grabbing a whopping 43.5 percent of their missed shots.

“It’s going to be a huge challenge for us,” Haith said. “Because I think their length and their size and their athletic ability, we have to do a great job of keeping them off the offensive glass. That’s one of my biggest concerns going into this game is our ability to keep them off the boards.

“On the flip side of that, we have to continue to do what we do. I think we emphasize going to the glass offensively and we have to continue to do that, get extra possessions. It’s going to be really a huge key for us is keeping them off the boards.”

It’s not like Missouri’s a slouch when it comes to the height and rebounding departments. The Tigers are 27th in the nation in average height of 78.1 inches — or 6-foot-6 — and 25th in the country in rebounding with 39.4 per game. The numbers on the offensive glass aren’t too shabby either, as Missouri pulls down 36.8 percent of its misses, ranking 33rd in the nation.

“I think it’s a big deal — not just rebounding, but boxing out,” Missouri guard Earnest Ross said. “I think it will be a big effort for us. I think boxing your man out is going to be an important (aspect for this game).”

Missouri has been able to exert itself on the glass in its first 20 games of the season, winning the rebounding battle 15 times. The Tigers have only been out-rebounded twice. Yet Missouri lost the battle (43-38) against another gigantic frontcourt last week at LSU. Johnny O’Bryant III and Jordan Mickey led the way for LSU, and continue to do so as the Tigers from down south are 12th in the nation in rebounding (41.1 per game).

“They’re right with them,” Haith said, comparing Kentucky’s frontcourt to LSU’s. “Obviously you saw the game the other night (LSU beat Kentucky 87-82 on Tuesday at home). I thought that was a great matchup in terms of their front lines. Cauley-Stein gave us problems last year with his length. He’s the kind of guy that can affect the game in so many ways without scoring points. Because his length and his athleticism and how well he moves his feet. Then you got Dakari Johnson (a 7-footer off the bench).”

Missouri’s starting frontcourt, comprised of Johnathan Williams III (6-foot-9) and Ryan Rosburg (6-foot-10), will have their hands full Saturday. Williams maintains the team lead in rebounding with 7.6 per game, while Rosburg pulls down 4.5. Ross leads the Tiger backcourt with 6.7 rebounds per contest.

Williams added 12 more to his total during Missouri’s 75-71 win Tuesday at Arkansas, while Rosburg tallied nine.

“(It’s about) roles, everybody understanding their roles,” Haith said. “And I think (Williams), if he does that every night, he’s going to help us win games. He not only rebounded but he blocked shots. He had three huge blocks in that game. We need him consistently doing that. We’ve had games where our guards rebounded well, but he and Ryan, … we had 21 rebounds out of those two guys, that’s really good. That’s big for us. That’s something those guys can do consistently as far as getting loose rebounds.”

And that’s especially critical against Kentucky.

“Absolutely,” Haith said. “Absolutely. There’s no question. When you look at the size and the length of Kentucky and you look at their numbers in terms of how well they rebound the ball, it’s going to be key, our ability to keep them off the glass and our ability to get some second shots.”

Williams’ plan?

“Just use my quickness, use my speed,” he said. “I know I’m not the biggest person in the world but I’m actually kind of strong. I just have to use my foot speed and out-smart them, out-think them.”

The Tigers’ Big Three of Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Ross recognize the importance of helping out the big guys too.

“I think we always have to try to rebound,” Brown said. “I feel like if me and Jordan get five, six rebounds, and (Ross) can get 10 rebounds any game, if we do that it will definitely help our cause. … Not necessarily to have a chance, but I think it will help.”

Now it’s up to Missouri to tower over the trees.

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