Every time Kentucky’s leading scorer, Kevin Knox, touched the ball and every time the public address announcer mentioned his name, boos filled Mizzou Arena on Saturday.
Knox’s crime? As a recruit, he signed with Kentucky rather than Missouri. And the fans let him know they hadn’t forgotten.
Coincidentally or not, Knox struggled. He made only two of six shots. His five points were his second-fewest of the season — he had four against Monmouth — and he had reached double-digit points in all but five previous games.
When asked if the booing affected Knox, UK Coach John Calipari said, “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him.”
Three seasons ago, a similar thing happened here with another UK freshman, Devin Booker, whose father had been a Missouri star. He made only three of seven shots and scored nine points in that game played on Jan. 29, 2015.
Teammate Jarred Vanderbilt dismissed the notion that the booing affected Knox’s play.
“Nothing,” he said. “He’s human. It happens. You have good games. You have bad games.”
Missouri’s Jordan Barnett and Coach Cuonzo Martin seemed to interpret questions about the booing affecting Knox as a not-so-subtle slight of the Tigers’ defense.
“I mean, we locked him up,” Barnett said in summing up the defensive plan. “I don’t know about the fans. I don’t know if it was the fans or what. We held him to five points, and he’s the leading scorer. So we did a good job with that.”
Added Martin with a slight smile, “We wanted to make him work.”
Martin also suggested that the primary defender, Cullen VanLeer, played a similar style, so familiarity helped in containing Knox.
Knox was “really a catch-and-shoot guy,” Martin said. “Cullen understands that because that’s what he is.”
UK’s frustrations appeared to surface with 1:01 left in the first half. TV replays showed Jarred Vanderbilt not liking being aggressively boxed out by Missouri guard Jordan Geist. Vanderbilt slung Geist to the floor.
Both players received technical fouls, and Vanderbilt was assessed an additional flagrant one foul, which was his third overall. Geist made one of two technical free throws to set the halftime score.
“Just two competitive guys going after the ball,” Vanderbilt said. “That’s all it was.”
Barnett and teammate Kassius Robertson claimed not to have seen what happened.
UK lost for the fourth time in the last nine games. And Calipari pointed out that UK could have lost to Vanderbilt on Tuesday.
Calipari suggested that getting players to play with collective purpose during periods of defeat makes for a supreme coaching challenge.
“It’s easy when you’re winning,” he said. “When you get beat, and you have to bring a team together, that’s when I look at guys in our profession and say, that guy’s really coaching.
“For us right now, we shouldn’t have won the last game (against Vandy). It is what it is.”
Of UK’s remaining games in the regular season, Calipari said, “We could lose all eight.”
Statistics maven Ken Pomeroy gives UK better than a 47-percent chance of winning in only three of those games, all in Rupp Arena: Alabama (70 percent), the rematch with Missouri (65 percent) and Ole Miss (78 percent).
Quade Green labeled UK’s game at West Virginia last weekend as a must-win. Although Missouri hopes to play its way into the NCAA Tournament, Martin recoiled from the notion that beating Kentucky, which had a No. 13 RPI, was a must-win for his team.
“Not at all,” he said. “I’ve never been a part of any must-wins. Just live to fight another day. More important, we protect the home court.”
An announced capacity crowd (15,061) made for an inspiring or challenging environment, depending on your point of view.
“Pretty much the whole city of Columbia on our side,” Mizzou forward Kevin Puryear said.
Added Martin: “Tremendous atmosphere. One of the better ones I’ve been around.”
Missouri had a Ratings Percentage Index of No. 35. The loss dropped UK’s record against teams in the top 50 RPI to 3-4 and to 10-6 against teams with a top-100 RPI. … Kentucky went into the game ranked No. 341 out of 351 Division I teams with an average of five three-point baskets per game. Pomeroy ranked UK No. 347 in percentage of points coming from three-pointers. … On the plus side, UK won the rebounding battle 40-36. Missouri had outrebounded 18 of its previous 22 opponents.