COLUMBIA — It took a little while for all the pieces to fit, but the Kentucky Wildcats are playing some of the best basketball in the NCAA as they make the journey to Mizzou Arena to take on a Missouri team that is making progress in fits and starts.
Tonight's game pits the Tigers (12-12, 3-9 Southeastern Conference) against No. 4 Kentucky (21-4, 10-2) at 8 p.m. on ESPN. Missouri will retire all-time program scoring leader Derrick Chievous' No. 3 jersey with a halftime ceremony.
The Wildcats started the year No. 2, slipped to No. 10 after a blowout loss to Duke in the Champions Classic to begin the season and then to 19th after an overtime loss on a neutral court to Seton Hall, but have been working their way back ever since.
The team lost Quade Green to transfer after nine games and had hiccups in conference play at Alabama and at home against LSU, but Kentucky showed it means business again this season with a comfortable 86-69 win Saturday night against then-No. 1 Tennessee.
Saturday afternoon at Mississippi, Missouri showed turnovers are still a problem and the return of Mark Smith, while helpful, will have a reduced impact until Smith is back to the level of fitness and shooting form he had before his ankle injury. Smith was 1-for-4 from the floor in 14 minutes.
"It's the foot, so there's not a lot he can do," Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said Monday. "But because his preparation, training, weightlifting, meeting with P.B. (associate head athletic trainer Pat Beckmann) and getting healthy, he was able to be on the floor like that. I think the conditioning part will come as he continues to be on the floor. He wasn't able to get up and down in any practice, so two days before the game he practiced where there was no contact, then the next day kind of got up and down, then in the game."
Martin said he expects Smith to play today against Kentucky.
The Wildcats have risen to third in the conference standings behind Tennessee and LSU because of their defense, and the common theme in their four losses is when opponents are able to reach the mid-70s in scoring. Kentucky beat Texas A&M and Auburn as a contradiction to this, but the team is 4-4 in games it allows 73 or more points, and 17-0 in all other games.
Both teams want to make this a defensive battle, but the Wildcats have the edge on the offensive end, particularly offensive rebounding.
"Well, again, Cuonzo is coaching his team and playing the way they have to play to win," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said Monday on the conference's media call. "One, you know his teams are always going to be good defensively. They're going to lock you down and they're going to turn down ball screens. They're going to fight you on pick-and-rolls, fight you on pin downs."
Where Missouri has to be most careful is after the Wildcats miss a shot. PJ Washington and Reid Travis have 66 and 68 offensive rebounds respectively this season, or about three per game on average. The Tigers' guards, particularly Javon Pickett and Xavier Pinson, have become very involved in the team's rebounding efforts, much of which is a product of the lineups Missouri has been using.
Washington was just named SEC player of the week for averaging 21.5 points, seven rebounds, two assists and 1.5 steals in games against LSU and Tennessee. The 6-foot-8 sophomore forward is an incredibly efficient scorer and is shooting 43 percent from 3-point range. Senior center Travis is the only other non-freshman in the main rotation for Calipari, who has another loaded class of freshman talent in point guard Ashton Hagans, small forwards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro, and guards Immanuel Quickley and Jemarl Baker.
Hagans, in particular, is the kind of on-ball pressure defender that has given Missouri trouble lately. The Tigers' 25 turnovers against Mississippi matched a season-high set at Iowa State.
"They did press us a little bit, it was more of us being careless with the ball," Pickett said of the team's turnovers against the Rebels. "We could be a lot more secure with the ball, I feel like we showed that in our previous games not turning the ball over as much. We've just got to get back to that, being more poised and making sure that we take care of the ball throughout the whole game."