Kentucky travels to Columbia, MO today to take on the Missouri Tigers (14-8, 4-5 SEC) at 2 pm. You can catch all the action on CBS. The Cats will face a solid Missouri team in front of a packed and rowdy audience. The Tigers have struggled as of late, but answered the bell Wednesday, winning at Alabama after dropping their three previous contests. This time of year, every game matters and nothing would help a fringe-tournament team like Missouri more than knocking off the 21st ranked Wildcats. Kentucky looks to start well early and keep the momentum going after winning their last two in dramatic fashion after slow starts.

KEYS TO THE GAME

  • It’s not a matter of if, but when, for Jarred Vanderbilt. He is doing a ton of little things very well to help get wins. Vanderbilt seems to bring the best out of UK’s star, Kevin Knox, when they share the floor. He rebounds as well as anyone and does it from all spots on the floor. He makes passes only a handful of people can make. What’s missing? Confidence from the field. I think Coach Cal will look to post him up as soon as he checks in and once he sees a few shots go down, look out America. Hopefully, today is that day.

  • Hamidou Diallo saw the light. Or Coach Cal sat him in the film room a few weeks back and showed him some completely unacceptable examples of bad basketball. Since? He has been infinitely smarter with the ball. Pulling it out on breaks where it’s Diallo on 4. He is making good passes which is a huge step forward from him making no passes. He has had breakdowns on defense, but not for lack of effort. He has improved on that end of the floor noticeably. Diallo has taken his energy and awareness to a higher level as of late. If he continues this trend today, the Cats become a much more complete team.
  • Guard play. KEEP. IT. UP. During UK’s two-game losing streak, it was no coincidence that Quade Green’s shot was not a weapon at Kentucky’s disposal. The first of the two losses, Green was out. The second loss was his first game back and he went 1-8 from the field and 0-4 from deep. He has shot 4-8 from three in his last two and the Cats have needed every one of them.  When he hits shots and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is on the floor, UK gets far better looks closer to the rack and we all know SGA getting to the basket generally works out well for the Cats. I see these two pacing UK in Columbia today.

  • If Missouri is hitting shots from deep they will be very hard to beat. If they are not on, it could be a runaway win for Kentucky. They go as their two stars go. Kassius Robertson scores 16 a game and shoots 41.7% from deep. Jordan Barnett notches 14 a game and shoots the three at a 41.4% clip from three. The Cats better stay close to those two and close out with a hand in the face.
  • If Mizzou isn’t connecting from deep, rebounds will be a massive key. The Cats have improved in that area with the emergence of Vanderbilt, but will have to capitalize on an average rebounding Missouri team. They rank 80th nationally in that department at 37.8 rebounds per game.
  • In Kentucky’s last two come from behind wins, the press has played a huge role. Double figure leads have melted away in minutes when the press was put on. Missouri averages 15 turnovers per game which could turn into more if the press has been as effective as it was at West Virginia and against Vandy.

PREDICTION

I think this will be the first time UK puts a complete performance together since Louisville and has some fun while doing it. Recent UK teams have hit a stride right about this time of year. Have the last two close games served as wake up calls for the Cats and showed them that, in spurts, they can be as good as any? Big games from Knox, Vanderbilt, and Green will lead UK to a 81-72 road win.

Images courtesy of Elliot Hess UK Athletics, @KentuckyMBB and Alex Slitz Photo