The schedule says Kentucky plays at Missouri Tuesday. But, in a sense, Kentucky is playing Kentucky.
The numbers and this season’s track record say Missouri is much the easier opponent.
Missouri’s current Ratings Percentage Index of 249 is worse than any other opponent on Kentucky’s schedule. That includes Cleveland State (240), Duquesne (230) and Stephen F. Austin (210).
If the Missouri campus were in Kentucky, the Tigers would have the seventh-best RPI in the Commonwealth: behind Louisville (four), UK (nine), Northern Kentucky (129), Morehead State (179), Western Kentucky (218) and Murray State (237). Of the Division I teams, only Eastern Kentucky has a poorer RPI, and just barely at 252.
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So UK will want to meet its standard of play, which has been an elusive target this season.
Associate Coach Kenny Payne, who substituted for John Calipari at the regular day-before-the-game news conference, said Missouri’s profile, which is as low as the approval rating for Congress, was incidental.
“Every game we play, I think it’s important that we play to our standards,” Payne said. “It’s not about the other team. And that’s no disrespect to any team we play in this conference. All are good teams.
“Our standard is higher.”
When asked about how consistently Kentucky has made its standard, Payne did not mince words.
“It’s all over the board a little bit right now,” he said. “But now is the time we need to become more consistent.”
With the NCAA Tournament three weeks away, Payne listed several areas that could use more consistency. He began with energetic play and defending a ball-screen. This led immediately to on-ball defense, which has been something of a recurring nightmare for Kentucky this season.
You better be ready to take things personal, because they are.
“In spurts it’s been good,” he said of on-ball defense. “We need it to be consistent.”
Fresh in mind is Georgia guard J.J. Frazier coming close to single-handedly beating Kentucky on Saturday. He scored 36 points (one shy of a career high) and got credit for three assists.
“Kid tore us apart,” Payne said.
Afterward, Kentucky paid tribute to Frazier. “Controlled the whole game,” UK Coach John Calipari said.
“He took over the game for them,” said De’Aaron Fox, whose takeover in the final minutes rescued UK from defeat. “J.J. carried their team. But one person is not going to beat us.”
Frazier came uncomfortably close. Payne suggested that the likely season-ending injury to Yante Maten inside the first two minutes made Frazier even more difficult to contain because he became solely responsible for his team’s fate, and his teammates did what they could to free him.
Surely no one sees a Frazier on Missouri’s team, which brings a 7-19 overall record (2-12 in the SEC) into the game.
Mychal Mulder said the Cats would be excited to play Missouri.
“We’re excited about playing any team,” he said. “Because every game we go into, we’re kind of playing against ourselves. We’re working so hard not to allow ourselves to be the one that beats us.”
Calipari spoke Monday on a Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference.
“That’s always the case for us,” he said of Kentucky trying to play to its own standard. “But you better be ready to play harder than they play, and you better be ready to take things personal, because they are.”
On a SEC coaches teleconference, Calipari called Missouri “a dangerous team,” in part because the Tigers can play freely with nothing special on the line.
“We’re playing a team with house money,” the UK coach said. “And they’re letting it go and making shots and making plays they haven’t all year because it’s house money.”
Calipari acknowledged that Kentucky continues to search for a consistent level of play.
“We’re one of those teams with enormous upside, even now,” he said. “There are times I think we’ve figured it out, and there are other times I look and I’m, like, we haven’t.”
Calipari said he forgets how difficult it can be to bring a freshman-dependent team to a peak. As he suggested after UK won at Georgia on Saturday, that time is fast approaching.
“You’ve got to go on that run when you really start to play better, and you’re really starting to groove it,” he said. “And you’re really starting to mesh. We haven’t quite hit that run yet.”
No. 11 Kentucky at Missouri
When: 9 p.m.
Records: UK 22-5 (12-2 SEC), Missouri 7-19 (2-12)
Series: UK leads 9-0
Last meeting: UK won 88-54 on Jan. 27, 2016, in Lexington
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1