Mizzou opens conference play against a Kentucky team trying to flex its muscle in a top heavy SEC.
If you’re reading this, you made it through the non-conference schedule. Congrats! Wasn’t much fun was it?
From the beginning, this team always had the look of a 9-3 or 8-4 best-case scenario in the first two months of the 2021-2022 season, but November and December have proven to be a slog. From the opening week loss to UMKC to thrashings at the hands of their two main rivals, it’s been Cuonzo Martin’s toughest year as the Missouri head coach. If things don’t improve, it may also be his last.
If there’s going to be any opportunity for the Tigers to prove themselves, it’ll be in the crucible of the SEC. Five of the leagues 14 teams are located in the top 20 KenPom teams, four of them bundled between 9 and 13. Twelve teams have records of 8-4 or better. The league will be hoping that its strength could result in up to 7 or 8 NCAA bids, with the middle tier squads stealing a few marquee wins while cleaning up on the conference’s bottom dwellers. I probably don’t need to tell you who exists there (looking at you, Georgia.)
So what would it take to redeem a season that already feels lost? I suppose that’s up for each person to decide. A .500 record would keep the Tigers decidedly in the average range, but KenPom currently has the Tigers favored to win in only one of their remaining games, with a projected record of 10-21. So assuming the Tigers get those four wins, how many more does it take to keep the current regime in place?
Would 13-18 do it? An extra three wins would certainly mean picking off some top teams; maybe Florida at home in early February or Arkansas at home a few weeks later? Would more competitive results in general help? The Tigers aren’t exactly losing coin flips — five of their six losses have been by 14 points or more. Do the Tigers need to play major spoiler to a few teams like Mississippi State, Arkansas or more? Is the answer all of the above?
That remains to be seen. Even the most optimistic, glass-half-full fan, the ones who look at conference play as a new lease on life, have to be squinting looking at the two months ahead. As you’ll learn shortly, the trends aren’t good and the Tigers either need some serious course correction or a dramatic change in luck. Preferably both.
Note: These starting lineups are projected.
Players to Watch
Kofi Cockburn may have given the Tigers fits, but eve he’s a step below Oscar Tshiebwe. The West Virginia transfer has dominated since arriving in Lexington. He’s unquestionably the country’s top rebounder (ranking first on offense and defense) and shoots 65 percent from the field while drawing fouls, defending the rim and grabbing steals. KenPom currently ranks him as second in its Player of the Year race. So yeah… he’s alright.
Calipari isn’t just relying on one player either. Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler is thriving as a pure creator in the Wildcat offense with one of the country’s best assist rates (37 percent.) Junior Keion Brooks is a strong defender as a combo forward and shoots efficiently enough to clean up when Tshiebwe is being doubled. Kellan Grady is listed as “Nearly Invisible” in KenPom’s usage rankings, but the senior is a lights out three-and-D guy, shooting 47.5 percent from deep while fouling only 0.5 times per 40 minutes. Freshman TyTy Washington has also found his feet remarkably quick, with above average percentages from two and three, along with some strong creation numbers and low foul rates.
John Calipari has tightened his rotation to nine in non-conference play, and he’s got a few highly useful bench pieces when he needs to rotate his elite starters. Senior guard Davion Mintz takes care of the ball and doesn’t command too much of the ball, but he knows his strengths (getting to the line) with a team-best 42.9 free throw rate. Freshman Daimon Collins is rebounding well enough to get him some minutes and providing excellent rim protection and back-up paint offense. He still fouls too much, but he’s not asked to do too much. Jacob Toppin is doing about what you’d want a back up big to do: rebound well, shoot OK, play solid defense and, hey, have a healthy assist rate out of the block! That’s a bonus. Freshman Bryce Hopkins rounds out the rotation with a developing jump shot and a willingness to rebound that makes Kentucky dangerous from top to bottom on the glass.
When Missouri has the ball…
What to Watch | Just… make shots I guess?
Kentucky doesn’t have a lot of holes in its defense, ranking in the top 40 in three of KenPom’s Four Factors. The only one in which they don’t is turnovers, and somehow I feel like Missouri will find a way to make some of those happen.
This is so boring only 12 games into the season, and I apologize for not having any better answers. But Missouri just needs to start making shots. They’re currently 4th worst in Division I in three point shooting and 200th in two-point shooting. Their usual tactic of creating second chances will be neutralized against Kentucky’s strong rebounders, so it would behoove the Tigers to simply start shooting better.
When Kentucky has the ball…
What to Watch | What to do about Oscar?
In last week’s preview of Illinois, I titled this section, “How do you solve a problem like Kofi,” and the Illini big proceeded to hang 25 and 14 on the Tigers. Problem not solved, I guess. Now imagine that production just… better. As I mentioned above, Oscar Tshiebwe is arguably the country’s best player, combing rebounding dominance with offensive efficiency at a devastating clip. Missouri didn’t have an answer for Cockburn, but they better find one for Tshiebwe or it’s going to be a long, long evening.
Kentucky 79, Missouri 60 | The entire 2021-2022 season has felt like a “rough patch,” but Wednesday’s match up represents the third time in the past four games in which Missouri plays a top 15 team. They’ve lost the previous two games by a combined 62 points. Outside of some drastic Christmas improvement or some hard positive regression to the mean, things don’t seem to be looking up in Lexington.