Missouri to host talented Kentucky

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Frank Haith likens them to the Fab Five.

Yet this 2013-14 batch of freshmen at Kentucky might need to go by the Super Six. As in, the Wildcats boast six McDonald’s All-Americans currently listed as freshmen on the roster. The number balloons to seven when you consider sophomore Alex Poythress.

No. 11 Kentucky (15-5, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) enters Saturday’s contest with Missouri (16-4, 4-3 SEC), slated to tip-off at noon at Mizzou Arena (KRCG-TV), with maybe the finest — or at least most highly touted — collection of freshmen in the history of college basketball.

“They’re really good,” Haith said after comparing the group to Michigan’s famous 1991 quintet. “I saw all these kids in high school and they were very talented. I think they’re worthy of their praise.

“They’ve got McDonald’s All-Americans coming off the bench. They can throw a number of guys at you.”

The half-dozen — Julius Randle, twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, James Young, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee — considered the best recruiting class of all time, prompted voters to tag Kentucky as the preseason No. 1. While the precocious Wildcats have endured their share of bumps and bruises along the way, there’s no questioning their talent and potential.

“They’re better now than they were in November, as all young teams will get better,” Haith said. “… I anticipate Kentucky being Kentucky. When I watch them play against Louisville or any of the games they’ve played, they’re an outstanding team. Their young guys are way better than they were when they started.”

Randle is advertised as the best of the group. Considered one of the favorites for the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA Draft along with Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, and Duke’s Jabari Parker, the 6-foot-9 forward hasn’t disappointed. Randle pours in 16.1 points per game along with pulling down an SEC-best 10.2 rebounds per contest.

“Wow. He’s a load,” Haith said of Randle. “He does so many things. He plays with such high energy. For a young kid he’s put together. When you have his girth and his athletic ability, his size, and then you add on top of that the intangible of how hard he plays, it makes him very difficult (to stop).

“We’ve got to have great team defense against him. No one guy is going to stop him. We’ve got to have an awareness of where he’s at in terms of keeping him off the offensive glass. We have to have a great team effort to defend him because he scores a lot of different ways.”

Young (14.7 ppg), Aaron Harrison (13.8 ppg) and Andrew Harrison (11.0 ppg) round out four freshmen in Kentucky’s starting lineup. Willie Cauley-Stein — a sophomore who averages 7.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks — is the lone exception. Johnson and Lee figure as the seventh and eighth options for the Wildcats.

“That’s a credit to coach (John) Calipari and his system,” Missouri point guard Jordan Clarkson said. “Bringing freshmen in like that and blending them all together is hard. I’ve got the utmost respect for him and his program. I think they’re a great team.”

But it’s not like the Tigers are in awe of Calipari’s restocked juggernaut. Even if his philosophy of recruiting one-and-done players did pay off with a national championship in 2012.

“What he does is extremely hard to do,” Haith said. “He’s done it very well. He’s won a national championship there doing it the way he does it and getting those guys and getting them to play a certain way. And you’re massaging egos and all that stuff. He is to be commended. This group is getting better and better. I’m sure we’ll get their very best effort (this) afternoon.”

Calapari said Missouri’s trio of Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross has the the attention of the Wildcats.

“The combined three of their guards are as good as we’ll play in or outside of our league,” he said.

Kentucky is coming off an 87-82 loss Tuesday at LSU. All five of Kentucky’s losses have come on the road.

After the game, the Wildcat players called a team meeting to talks things over. One topic of the discussion was to be more unselfish on the floor.

“What it means to lead is to serve everyone else,” Calipari said. “So when someone says there’s no leadership, there’s no one serving another player on the team. All their emotions are tied to how they’re playing.”

Kentucky brings the talented freshmen. It brings the brand name. It brings the eight national championships and the prestige. And it brings a golden opportunity for the Tigers.

“I think it’s a good chance for us to go out there and show the NCAA Committee that we can be able to compete with the rest of the teams in the tournament,” Missouri guard Earnest Ross said.

Added Haith: “We have great opportunity (today) to play against one of the best teams in the country. … If you play this game and you’re a competitor, you have to embrace these opportunities. You have to really get excited about having a chance to compete in that kind of game.”

There’s no doubt about that.

“It’s here. I came here to play against the best competition,” Clarkson, who transfered from Tulsa, said. “They’re considered one of the best programs in the country. This is what I came here for — to play in games like these.”

Missouri wants a shot at the NCAA Tournament. Here’s the Tigers’ chance to show the nation just what they can do.

Notes: Kentucky can boast signing 21 McDonald’s All-Americans since 2000. By comparison, Missouri had just one, Travon Bryant in 2000. … Jabari Brown leads the Tigers with 19.8 ppg. Clarkson adds 18.5 ppg while Ross adds 14.5 ppg.

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