If Kentucky struggles Tuesday at Missouri, the term “trap game” will be used liberally in postgame assessments.
The 11th-ranked Wildcats (22-5, 12-2 SEC) are tied atop the Southeastern Conference standings with No. 13 Florida, which plays Saturday at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
The Tigers (7-19, 2-12 SEC), who’ve lost 17 straight games against ranked foes, languish near the bottom of the SEC and have lost three meetings with coach John Calipari’s teams by an average of 33 points during Kim Anderson’s three-year tenure.
It’s widely forecast as a mismatch, so anything that doesn’t fit that narrative will require an explanation, like labeling it a trap game.
Calipari isn’t convinced.
“I know what their record is, so I expected to see something different when I started watching tape,” he said Monday on the SEC Men’s Basketball Teleconference. “But I fully expect they’re going to come and play.”
Missouri has never beaten Kentucky in nine tries and will lose 20 games for the third straight season, barring a miraculous — and completely unrealistic — 15-game winning streak through the national title game April 3 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
The Tigers only had two 20-loss seasons in program history — 1965-66 and 1966-67 under Bob Vanatta — before the Anderson era, but Calipari sees Tuesday’s 8 p.m. tipoff on the SEC Network as “a dangerous game.”
“Missouri is playing their best basketball of the season ,” Calipari said. “ … Kim is doing a job with how hard he’s getting them to play and compete. Again, I imagine we’re going to walk into an arena that’s going to have a ton of people in it.”
Calipari doesn’t worry about a trap awaiting the Wildcats at Mizzou Arena.
After all, every game is a potential trap for Kentucky, because its stature as one of the sport’s blue bloods leads to energetic road crowds and pumped-up opposing teams on a nightly basis.
“That’s always the case for us, but you better be ready to play harder than they play,” Calipari said. “You better be ready to take things personal, because they are. A lot of times, we’re playing teams that have house money, and they’re letting it go — making shots and making plays they haven’t all year, because it’s house money. We’re going into a dangerous game.”
Calipari is merely the latest in a long line of SEC coaches to compliment the Tigers’ hard-nosed style, which has seldom waned despite another season’s worth of struggles.
After a 20-point win Saturday against Mizzou, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes was effusive with his praise, too.
“We’ve actually used Missouri all year as an example to our players, a team that shows great perseverance and they keep playing hard,” he said. “Over the last couple of weeks, they’ve gotten some wins because they’ll battle you. We’ve told our guys, ‘We’ve got to have that kind of resolve.’ ”
Anderson appreciates the support.
“If they are trying to be nice, I appreciate that, too,” he said with a hearty laugh. “ … This group (of players) has been really good. We lost a bunch of games in a row. They could have folded, but they hung in there and they’ve gotten better. It doesn’t always show in the final score, but they have improved.”
He expects another high-effort performance against Kentucky, the program with the most wins in college basketball history, but understands that deck remains stacked against his squad.
“Our guys are competitive,” Anderson said. “I think they’re excited about playing a top program like Kentucky, so I don’t think it will be a problem getting them ready to play or anything like that. Again, I think we have to play a near-perfect game … to be able to hang with them.”