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Prior to Christmas, the Missouri basketball team finished its grueling three-game stretch to end non-conference play with games against Kansas, Utah and Illinois. Wednesday, the Tigers will start SEC play, and the challenge doesn’t get any easier.
Missouri will travel to Rupp Arena to face No. 18 Kentucky — and it will do so without its head coach. Cuonzo Martin announced on Monday that he tested positive for COVID-19. It is not yet known how long he will be away from the team, but he will not be on the sideline in Lexington. Assistant coach Cornell Mann will act as head coach in Martin’s absence.
Speaking to media members via Zoom Tuesday, Mann said preparation for the league-opener had felt “pretty normal” without Martin. Martin has offered some guidance from afar about the team’s practices, Mann said, but has largely left it up to the assistants to prepare the team.
“I’ve been here with coach Martin the whole time, and our whole staff has, so we understand exactly what coach wants us to do, we understand how things are supposed to go. The players understand that as well. And so I think we’re as prepared as anybody would be for this type of situation.”
The good news for Missouri is that the Tigers will have their entire roster available against Kentucky. No other Missouri coaches or players aside from Martin tested positive when the team returned to campus on Dec. 26. The team has not been surveillance-testing vaccinated individuals this season, meaning players have not been regularly tested like they were a year ago, and a team spokesperson said there are no plans to return to that policy.
Mann’s first game as Missouri’s acting head coach will come in a tough matchup against a Kentucky team that less than two weeks ago beat North Carolina by 29. Here is all the information you need to get set for the matchup.
Missouri will likely need a big game out of leading scorer Kobe Brown if it hopes to upset No. 18 Kentucky in Lexington. (Megan Fox)
TIP TIME INFORMATION
Missouri (6-5) vs Kentucky (9-s)
WHEN: 6:00 p.m.
WHERE: Rupp Arena, Lexington, KY
TV: SEC Network
RADIO: Tiger Radio Network (Mike Kelly, Chris Gervino)
SERIES: Kentucky leads 13-2
KenPom Prediction: Kentucky 79-60
THE STARTING LINEUPS
Kentucky Probable Starters
BY THE NUMBERS
MIZZOU KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Control the boards. Rebounding has been the most reliable predictor for success for Missouri so far this season. In each of their six wins, the Tigers have won the rebounding battle. Unfortunately, the likelihood of out-rebounding Kentucky seems slim. The Wildcats lead the nation in both offensive rebounding and overall rebounding rate. Led by center Oscar Tshiebwe, whose 15.45 rebounds per game lead the nation, Kentucky averages 17 more rebounds per game than its opponents. Missouri has to find a way to at least keep the rebounding margin close if it’s going to have a chance. Mann said that will require “elite box-outs,” and said his goal is to force two to three over-the-back fouls on Kentucky.
2. Find scoring opportunities in the paint. Of all the issues that have plagued the Tigers so far this season, three-point shooting might be the most pronounced. Missouri has made shots from behind the arc at just a 24.3 percent clip. That’s the worst mark among all high-major teams and ranks No. 355 out of 358 Division I teams. It doesn’t seem likely this will be the game in which the Tigers find their shooting stroke, either. Kentucky has held opponents to just 27.2 percent three-point shooting, which ranks 20th best in the country. The Wildcats are good around the rim, too, as they rank 51st in two-point field goal percentage defense, but Missouri has at least been more successful scoring inside the arc. The Tigers’ offensive game plan needs to resemble the second half against Utah, when the team attempted five three-pointers, more closely than the second half against Illinois, when it shot 15.
3. Keep the game low-scoring. Due in part to its shooting struggles, Missouri has not been able to keep pace in shootouts this season. The Tigers are 0-4 when giving up more than 75 points. Mann noted that, against Kansas and Illinois, Missouri devoted too much focus to protecting the rim and let each of those teams get hot from the perimeter. Avoiding that mistake against Tshiebwe will be key. Kentucky has not shot the ball great from three-point range so far this season, but Davidson transfer Kellan Grady and freshman TyTy Washington are both capable shooters. Missouri’s best chance is likely to muck this one up and win a low-scoring affair.
Missouri has shown this season that it simply can’t match the talent of top-25 opponents. Look for that to continue in the first game of SEC play. This just is not a good matchup for the Tigers. Kentucky averages more than 83 points per game, and Missouri has shown it can’t score at that level. Yet even if the Wildcats shoot poorly, no one has been able to keep them off the offensive glass. Add in the fact that Missouri has never fared well in Rupp Arena (the Tigers are 0-7 all-time and have lost the last four by an average of 29 points) and this doesn’t appear likely to be a close contest.
FINAL SCORE: Kentucky 83, Missouri 62