Kentucky measures Tyler Ulis by the size of his heart
Freshman-dependent team. Opponent tied for last place in the Southeastern Conference. Three days from facing a ranked opponent on a nationally televised stage.
That is the setup for Kentucky’s game against Missouri on Wednesday night in Rupp Arena. A game Saturday at No. 4 Kansas casts a shadow that’s impossible to ignore.
But before the SEC-Big 12 Challenge, Kentucky faces a Don’t-Look-Ahead Challenge.
“Obviously, it’s a challenge with younger players,” said UK assistant coach Tony Barbee, who substituted for John Calipari at Tuesday’s news conference. “(The Cats seek) the consistency of not worrying about who your opponent is, and just preparing to play your best.”
UK fans realize their favorite team has had its ups and downs this season. Individually and collectively, Kentucky has had head-scratching moments.
The onus for smoothing out Kentucky’s ride falls on older players, Barbee said.
“We lean on our veteran players to bring it every night,” said Barbee, who surprised no one by singling out Tyler Ulis as a veteran who can lead by this example. “Tyler is a player that brings it every night and plays with a sense of urgency.
“We have to get our freshmen catching up. It doesn’t matter who we play.”
In terms of won-lost record, Missouri does not seem like a scary opponent. The Tigers are 8-11 overall and 1-5 in the SEC, the latter good for a share of last place with Alabama and Mississippi State.
A victory over Auburn is Missouri’s only victory in 10 games against teams from the so-called Power Five conferences. In the seven losses before beating Auburn, Missouri trailed by 20 or more points in six of those games.
But Barbee pointed out that in its last three games, Missouri played competitively against South Carolina, Georgia and Texas A&M. The Tigers lost by single-digit margins in the first two games, and used a zone defense to make A&M sweat.
“Our guys played hard,” Coach Kim Anderson said after the 66-53 loss at A&M. “They played their rear ends off. . . . Hopefully, we can take this to Kentucky and compete against them.”
Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy noticed Missouri’s effort.
“Missouri didn’t come in here and just lay down,” he said after the game.
Kentucky, 15-4 and 5-2, sees itself on an uptick, especially on defense. In losing to UK last week, Arkansas and Vanderbilt made only 36.2 percent of their shots (38 of 105), and only seven of 27 three-point attempts (25.9 percent).
To explain the improved defense, Barbee said, “We talked about getting back to our roots.”
Isaiah Briscoe linked the better defense to a reaction to the loss at Auburn.
“The main point is just talking,” he said. “You can never talk too much on defense. Coach (Calipari) thinks when we’re talking, that’s when we’re at our best.”
The irony didn’t escape Briscoe. When he arrived at UK last summer, he agreed to strictly limit his trash talking. But that’s not the kind of talking Calipari wants, Briscoe said with a smile.
Calipari wants to hear players calling out switches, pointing out an especially good shooter for an opponent or alerting teammates to the presence or absence of a help defender.
In that sense, Briscoe is free to express himself.
“Coach always says I’m one of the more vocal guys in practice on the court . . . ,” he said. “Now, every possession, every minute, I’m talking. Telling people their assignments.”
Briscoe dismissed the possibility of Kentucky going silent against Missouri in order to save the communication for Kansas.
“It is going to be a big game,” he said of Kansas on Saturday. “But we’ve got to take care of business tomorrow first. We’re taking it day by day and game by game.”
No doubt, the UK coaches welcome that sentiment. But Barbee spoke of being alert to signs of looking ahead.
“Consistency is always an issue for freshmen,” he said. “Not only game to game or practice to practice, but possession by possession.”
That’s why, Kentucky leans on veterans like Ulis to show the way.
“But,” Barbee added, “it’s kind of inevitable for young guys to possibly look ahead.”
Missouri at Kentucky
When: 9 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Missouri 8-11 (1-5 SEC), Kentucky 15-4 (5-2)
Series: Kentucky leads 8-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 69-53 on Jan. 29, 2015, at Columbia, Mo.