Kentucky’s veil of invincibility has been pierced only two games into conference play.
The top-ranked Wildcats, 15-0, needed overtime to knock off Mississippi in their Southeastern Conferencebasketball opener and went to double overtime Saturday before remaining perfect with a 70-64 victory.
Despite the recent close shaves, Missouri, which has dropped five straight games against ranked teams, expects Kentucky to be at its juggernaut best at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Tigerscoach Kim Anderson said. “Obviously, they’re the best team in the country and they’re coming off two close games, so I know that they’re going to ready Tuesday night when we go into Lexington.”
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Anderson doesn’t believe his players will be intimidated by facing a Kentucky team replete with nine McDonald’s All-Americans.
“I don’t think we’ll be nervous,” Anderson said. “I think we know we’re playing the best team in the country. I think we just go down and play, go down and see how we stack up. This is a great test for us. … Win or lose, you’ll learn something from it.”
Missouri’s results may not show it, but there is a belief in the Tigers’ locker room that the team has turned a corner in the last five games.
Anderson’s squad knocked off LSU in its SEC opener and also played Illinois, Oklahoma State and Auburn down to the wire but lost all three games.
“We’ve been playing hard, and we’ve just got to come out with the same intensity and finish the game stronger and we’ll be fine,” senior guard Keith Shamburger said.
Still, it’s a tall order.
Missouri, 7-8 overall and 1-1 in the SEC, hasn’t knocked off the No. 1 team since a double-overtime win Feb. 4, 1997, against Kansas.
Kentucky has won 31 of its last 32 at home against unranked teams.
“Your margin for error against Kentucky is so slim that you’ve got to be on top of your game at both ends of the floor,” Anderson said.
The Wildcats’ size will be an issue for the Tigers, especially on defense.
“It comes down to making shots,” Anderson said. “That seems like a very simple statement, but it’s going to come down to making perimeter shots, if we can get good perimeter shots.”
Missouri will try to extend Kentucky’s defense, hoping to create lanes for penetration and opportunities at the rim.
“They’re so long and have a great capability to block shots,” Anderson said, “but I just want to go in there and play, play hard and kind of see where we stack up and see where it takes us.”
Rebounding will be critical for Missouri, which ranks 230th in the nation with a minus-0.7 average rebounding margin.
Kentucky checks in 11th at plus-9.2 and ranks fifth overall with a 42.2 rebounding average.
“What we face is certainly a team that has so many different weapons,” Anderson said. “They’re very deep, they’re big, they’re long. The thing that most impresses me about Kentucky, other than all the things I just said, is that, when they don’t play great, they still find ways to win. … In order to beat them, you’re going to have to have somebody have a special game.”
Anderson ruled out freshman guard Montaque Gill-Caesar, who has missed the last two games because of back spasms, during Monday’s SEC coaches teleconference. Anderson said Saturday after the loss at Auburn that Deuce Bello also remains suspended.