UK Men's Basketball

Missouri coach sees a ‘spark’ in Kentucky’s improved play

Kentucky guard Jamal Murray, left, leads a fast break in the second half. The University of Kentucky hosted Vanderbilt University, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016 at Rupp Arena in Lexington .
Kentucky guard Jamal Murray, left, leads a fast break in the second half. The University of Kentucky hosted Vanderbilt University, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016 at Rupp Arena in Lexington . Herald-Leader

Missouri has lost 20 straight away games.

Kentucky has won 31 straight home games.

And the Everest-sized mountain his team must climb Wednesday in Rupp Arena is only getting steeper, Missouri Coach Kim Anderson said Monday.

Anderson saw improved play from Kentucky last week. , “I think there’s a spark,” he said. Kentucky won at Arkansas and at home against Vanderbilt.

Speaking on the Southeastern Conference coaches’ teleconference, Anderson suggested that the Jan. 16 loss at Auburn might have been a turning point in Kentucky’s season.

“Probably woke them up a little bit,” he said.

Anderson was especially impressed with Kentucky’s victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday. “I thought from the get-go they did a great job forcing Vanderbilt to be uncomfortable,” he said, “and that’s similar to what they did against us last year when we came in there. They just didn’t let you do what you wanted to do, and I thought they did a good job of that against Vanderbilt.”

Any comparison to Kentucky’s 38-1 team of last season must be considered high praise indeed.

In Rupp Arena last season, Kentucky humiliated Missouri 86-37. It was Missouri’s most lopsided defeat since joining the SEC in 2012-13, most lopsided loss to any team since 1998 and its lowest point total in the era of the three-point shot.

“It was a horrible performance,” Anderson said.

During his turn on the teleconference, UK Coach John Calipari did not speak about routing opponents, or even beating opponents. Opponents are not central in his assessment of the Cats, he said.

“We’re trying to get guys to just think about one thing: continuous improvement,” he said. “It doesn’t mean (improving) by 100 percent. ‘Let’s just try to get better each day’ and we’re doing that.”

Calipari cited several areas of improvement last week.

“They played with more of a sense of purpose,” he said. “They zeroed in on doing what their job is for our team.”

Each player took personal responsibility for helping the group effort, Calipari said, “instead of them let one guy do everything.”

Then, in what sounded like a critical area of improvement, Calipari said, “We guarded full possessions for the first time. We had breakdowns, now. At least the mentality was let’s guard an entire possession.”

We’re trying to get guys to just think about one thing: continuous improvement. It doesn’t mean (improving) by 100 percent. ‘Let’s just try to get better each day’ and we’re doing that.

John Calipari

Another improvement was the stark contrast to the games against Mississippi State and Auburn a week earlier. In those games, Kentucky let double-digit leads dwindle dangerously (State) and disappear entirely (Auburn).

The Cats stayed comfortably ahead of Arkansas and Vandy, a difference Calipari attributed to making “winning plays,” a label he likes to put on making prudent plays that factor in with time and score considerations.

“Make the easiest possible play you can make,” Calipari said. “You still make plays. But you’re not looking for an ooh and an ahh. . . . You’re just trying to make a basketball play so we can win.”

8-0 Kentucky’s all-time record against Missouri

Against Auburn, Kentucky did not make winning plays about half the possessions after establishing a 12-point lead in the second half, Calipari said. The UK coaches have shown those possessions to the players, in particular Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe.

“They’re starting to get it,” Calipari said.

Anderson suggested that Kentucky players were settling into roles.

“The word I’d use is ‘definement,’” the Missouri coach said. Actually, that’s not a word, but he put it in context.

“They’re getting to where they’re defined and accept their roles and understand their roles,” Anderson said.

They’re getting to where they’re defined and accept their roles and understand their roles.

Kim Anderson, Missouri coach discussing UK’s players

The Missouri coach offered another possible reason for Kentucky’s improvement: a shortened rotation.

“The best players are playing the most minutes,” he said, “which is really what it’s all about.”

As preparation continues for Wednesday’s game, Anderson said he would not dwell on Missouri’s losing streak in away games and Kentucky’s near invincibility at home.

“I talk more about the opportunity to go and play a team like Kentucky,” he said.

Missouri faced similarly long odds at Texas A&M last weekend. The Tigers played competitively in losing 66-53.

Murray freshman of week

The SEC named Murray its Freshman of the Week. He averaged 18.5 points and 7 rebounds in last week’s two games.

Murray, who also won the award for Dec. 7-12, became the third UK player named Freshman of the Week this. Skal Labissiere (Nov. 9-14) and Briscoe (Dec. 2-7) also won it.

Ulis, Murray on lists

The United States Basketball Writers Association released the midseason watch lists for its national awards Monday.

Tyler Ulis was among the players listed for the USBWA’s National Player of the Year award. Other SEC players on the list were Jalen Jones of Texas A&M and Ben Simmons of LSU.

Murray was among the players listed for the USBWA’s National Freshman of the Year award. Other SEC players on the list were KeVaughn Allen of Florida and Simmons.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Wednesday

Missouri at Kentucky

9 p.m. (SEC Network)

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