COLUMBIA — Missouri coach Frank Haith has a pretty good idea of what his Tigers can expect Saturday night at Rupp Arena.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
The University of Kentucky’s basketball arena is one of the most storied in the country, a massive, ear-splittingly loud Kryptonite of sorts for opponents, thanks to fans who take basketball every bit as seriously as most Southeastern Conference schools take football.
The last time Haith was there — Dec. 6, 2008 — his Miami Hurricanes escaped with a 73-67 victory. The Wildcats were down — it was the final year of Billy Gillispie’s disastrous tenure — but the crowd of 24,109 still made an impression on Haith.
“The fans there are so knowledgeable, just the way they handle themselves,” Haith said. “I remember after the game coming out and there were still a ton of fans there because they wanted to greet their players.”
Unlike five years ago, Kentucky is no longer an underachieving college basketball superpower. Coach John Calipari has built a machine in Lexington, powered by stars such as Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who led the Wildcats to a national championship last March.
This season’s Wildcats, while talented, could be considered somewhat vulnerable. Freshmen Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, an Olathe Northwest grad, have had their moments and are future NBA Draft picks, but Kentucky suffered a massive blow when star freshman center Nerlens Noel — an athletic, swat-blocking, sure-fire NBA lottery pick — was lost for the season because of a knee injury a few weeks ago.
Since then, Kentucky, 18-8 overall and 9-4 in the SEC, was blown out 88-58 at Tennessee and beat a sub-.500 Vanderbilt team 74-70 at home. The Wildcats, whose NCAA Tournament worthiness will be decided by what they achieve without Noel, suddenly need a big win to prove to the selection committee that they still deserve to go to the Big Dance.
Haith knows Missouri, 19-7 and 8-5 in the SEC and fresh off a mammoth 63-60 home win over No. 5 Florida on Tuesday, certainly fits the bill.
“We know we’re going to get Kentucky’s very best,” Haith said.
Even without the 6-foot-10 Noel, who was averaging 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and a ridiculous 4.4 blocks per game, Haith sees a dangerous team that can hurt the Tigers with their athleticism in the open court.
“They are going to put the ball on us and attack us in transition, so we’ve got to get back and set our defense,” Haith said. That’s the big thing that concerns me, particularly in that building.
Add to that the fact the Tigers have lost to athletic squads such as Louisville, UCLA and Florida this season, and Saturday’s game — which will be broadcast nationally on ESPN as a part of “College Game Day” — will be a challenge.
“Our transition defense hasn’t been great,” Haith said, “but it’s gotten a lot better.”
Despite its 1-6 record in true road games, Missouri has played better away from home lately, beating Mississippi State and losing nail-biters to Texas A&M, LSU and Arkansas. That’s why Haith was happy to see the Tigers beat No. 5 Florida, a game in which they showed the kind of discipline and moxie needed to win tough games.
“You’re hopeful you can carry it over,” Haith said. “It’s great we won that because we had been playing pretty good. Even the losses at Arkansas and A&M, I felt good about our team getting better and better … we’ve just got to stay humble and stay hungry.”
There’s also the chance for a big road win to help MU’s NCAA Tournament resume. Based on past experience, Haith knows winning at Rupp would certainly qualify.
“We need a great, quality road win and we haven’t had that yet,” Haith said. “It’s important for us to continue to establish ourselves and put ourselves in position to have our names called out on (Selection) Sunday … so we’re right in the same boat with (Kentucky).”
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.