Kentucky may be playing for an NCAA Tournament bid. But the game against Missouri on Saturday night might be more important than that.
"I think this is definitely a game we can make a statement," UK guard Archie Goodwin said Friday. "... That we are a team that can do a lot of things people keep doubting us about, and just to show the world we actually know how to play the game."
UK Coach John Calipari continued to recoil from any attempt to add NCAA Tournament importance to a game.
The Cats may be too young and too fragile, especially after losing their best player (Nerlens Noel) to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, to take on any added responsibility against a veteran Missouri team (three seniors, one junior in the starting lineup).
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"We just have to take care of business," Calipari said. "Get better. Play game to game. Not worry about what's going on around us."
With a Ratings Percentage Index at No. 34 (according to CBSSports.com), Missouri and No. 4 Florida are UK's only remaining opponents with a top-70 RPI.
"I'm not worried about all that stuff ... ," Calipari said. "I try to keep it away from our guys. Let's just play basketball."
Rather than add importance, Calipari has tried to lighten the load. The dodge ball after Tuesday's practice cleared the air and the minds, Willie Cauley-Stein said.
"You get smoked twice (at Florida and at Tennessee last week), you're this young and you start questioning yourself," Calipari said. "You're going to be tentative."No wonder, Calipari welcomed the 74-70 victory over Vanderbilt on Wednesday.
"We needed something good to happen," Calipari said. "And we need it to continue happening."
Goodwin on what the loss of Noel meant: "It was a big blow to us because Nerlens was a very big key to the way we played. The energy he brought could not be (replaced) by anybody else."
Missouri point guard Phil Pressey is so quick he apparently needed a fast-sounding nickname. When he was a freshman, an assistant coach took to calling him "Flip."
The coach needed "a fast way to call my name," Pressey recalled. "I guess I flip the ball. It kind of imprinted on me and stuck with me ever since."
Pressey needed time to warm to the nickname.
"Uh, I mean, OK, I guess," he said of his initial reaction. "Then everybody started calling me that. It kind of grew onto me."
UK point guard Ryan Harrow fouled out of the last two games.
"My mom was like, 'I don't care if you foul out as long as you're playing physical and you're playing hard,'" Harrow said Wednesday night. "But some of the fouls were just dumb fouls that I can avoid. I'm just trying to play a little bit harder."
Goodwin welcomed Calipari's recent comment about accepting a bad shot or two from the fearless freshman each game.
"It's going to help," Goodwin said. " ... It wasn't something I expected him to say."
Attacking the glass
Missouri is one of only three teams to rank in the top 25 nationally in rebound efficiency on both the offensive (No. 9) and defensive (No. 22) boards.
"This team attacks the glass," Calipari said. "If we ball-watch, you have no chance."
Colorado State and Quinnipiac are the only other teams to rank in the top 25 nationally in both rebound categories.
ESPN GameDay anchor Rece Davis said Friday that he looks forward to bringing the show to Kentucky. That's because of the passion and pride that UK fans put on display.
The fans' message? "We're Kentucky and you're not," he said. "I think it's great. They want to show their passion is second to none."
About 15,000 fans are expected to be in Rupp Arena on Saturday morning for the GameDay telecast, which begins at 10 a.m. The show also originated from UK in 2005, 2007 and 2010.
Davis suggested Kentucky basketball is a carbon copy of Alabama football (or vice versa, if you prefer).
"In terms of passionate fan base and striving for excellence," he said. "To me, they're identical programs."
Growing up in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and attending the University of Alabama gave him an appreciation for Kentucky basketball, Davis said.
"I've been acutely aware of Kentucky basketball," he said.
■ Calipari lamented the long day of waiting before the 9 p.m. tip-off. "I hate it," he said.
■ Dan Shulman, Dick Vitale and Samantha Ponder will call the game for ESPN.