Calipari, Players Downplay "Must-Win" Status of Missouri Game
This article appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Jon Hale.
The opportunities for the UK men’s basketball team to earn a NCAA Tournament resume improving win are rapidly disappearing. One of those rare chances comes Saturday versus Missouri.
The Tigers travel to Rupp Arena for the first time as a Southeastern Conference school ranked No. 33 in the RPI according to RealTimeRPI.com. The Wildcats do not have a win against a team currently ranked in the RPI top 50.
Still, UK head coach John Calipari is not getting caught up in the talk of a must-win game.
“It’s a bell curve,” Calipari said of the NCAA Tournament field. “It’s not, ‘Well, you’re not good, so you’re not in.’ There may be 20 teams from this year’s tournament that wouldn’t have got in last year’s, wouldn’t have got in the tournament.
“We just got to take care of business, play our best, get better, play game to game, not worry about what’s going on around us and do our thing. I’m not worried about all that stuff. I just laugh when I’m hearing all this, ‘This is the biggest game. You’ve got to win every game.’ Is anybody else out there like this or just Kentucky?”
Even if the overall NCAA Tournament bubble is weaker than in recent seasons, the Cats will likely still need a win versus a quality opponent to prove themselves worthy for inclusion into the field.
UK has road games at Arkansas and Georgia, along with home games against Mississippi State and Florida, remaining on the schedule. Of those teams, likely only a win versus Florida, which already beat UK by 17 this season, would help the Cats’ NCAA Tournament resume.
So is it fair to say Saturday’s game is a must-win for the Cats?
“It’s a game that we need to win, you can say that,” said freshman guard Archie Goodwin. “But at this point of the season, that’s how it is for the majority of teams. We’re just one of those teams that we’re up against it right now. We’ve just got to go out there and prove that we belong.”
Missouri will present a difficult challenge for Goodwin and the other inconsistent UK guards.
Tigers point guard Phil Pressey leads the SEC at 6.9 assists per game. He has tallied at least 10 assists five times this season, including Tuesday when Missouri upset No. 5 Florida.
The last time the UK guards were counted on as a primary matchup, Goodwin and sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow combined for eight points on 4-of-12 shooting in a loss to Florida.
Goodwin is confident he and his teammates will be up to the challenge versus Missouri.
“It’s going to be a lot on the guards because this is like a playmaking game basically,” he said. “So we just have to go out there with the mindset that we’re the better guards, because we are, and just prove it and show that we’re here for a reason.”
After Tuesday’s win versus Vanderbilt, Calipari noted that his guards “are going to have to be really good” if his team has a chance to beat Missouri.
On Thursday he heaped praise on Pressey.
“He’s a great player,” Calipari said. “He’s really effective and efficient…goes in that lane and find people. He can score it when he needs to, but his whole thing is, ‘I’m going to get in here — I’ll drive baseline and hit that corner. I’ll drive right and throw it over my left shoulder and it a guy on the weak side for a three.’”
The Tigers will also present problems for the new-look UK lineup without star freshman Nerlens Noel.
Laurence Bowers, a 6-foot-8 forward, leads Missouri at 14.2 points per game, and 6-foot-9 center Alex Oriakhi averages 10.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
Without Noel, the Cats will rely on 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein to patrol the post. At times Tuesday versus Vanderbilt when Cauley-Stein was on the bench, UK was forced to play 6-foot-7 Alex Poythress at center.
“If you’re not physical in the post, you’re going to get chucked,” Calipari said. “You’d better be down and ready. They’re a good team.”
Missouri is not without its own struggles. The Tigers are 1-6 on the road this season with their only road victory coming against Mississippi State, currently ranked last in the SEC.
Those struggles have Missouri head coach Frank Haith saying the Wildcats are not the only team looking to improve their tournament resume Saturday.
“I think we need a great quality road win,” he said during a Thursday teleconference. “We haven’t had that yet, so it’s important for us to continue to establish ourselves and put us in position to have our names called out on that (Selection) Sunday. We’re right in the same boat with those guys too.”
Calipari acknowledged both teams enter Saturday trying to “change our fortunes.” Not surprisingly then, he made no effort to paint his team as overmatched.
“The basic thing is, you got to take everything off the table,” he said. “We have no excuses, no cop-outs. No one wants to hear it. Play. We have an opportunity. We have enough. We’re a good enough team. We’re just going to have to play.”
Written by Jon Hale
Photo: John Calipari on the sidelines/Jon Hale