Five things about Kentucky basketball’s next opponent, the Missouri Tigers:
1. Missouri’s best player is a grad transfer who has played against Kentucky
Kassius Robertson, a 6-foot-3 guard, is a grad transfer from Canisus who leads the Tigers in scoring at 16 points per game, the highest average among grad transfers at major conference schools.
If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because Canisus played Kentucky last season. In fact, Robertson’s 16 points in that 93-69 loss convinced the Toronto native he could play against stronger competition. After averaging 16.1 as a junior, Robertson visited Georgia Tech and Missouri before picking Mizzou.
Robertson has been on a tear of late, averaging 21 points per game over his last three games. He was four-of-eight from three-point land on the way to 22 points in Mizzou’s 69-60 win at Alabama on Wednesday night. And Alabama was coming off a Saturday win over Trae Young and Oklahoma.
A career 40.3 percent three-point shooter at Canisus, Robertson has made seven of 15 threes over his last two games. He’s shooting 43.5 percent from three in league games for a team that shot just 30.4 percent from three last season. That ranked 333rd out of 351 Division I schools. Robertson is also shooting 91.9 percent from the foul line in SEC play.
He’s also been an iron horse. He’s averaging 37.6 minutes per game in Missouri’s nine conference games. He’s led thte Tigers in scoring in 11 games this season and has scored 20-or-more points in eight games.
2. This is a typical Cuonzo Martin team
Back closer to his native East St. Louis, Illinois, Martin took over the Missouri program after Kim Anderson went 27-68 in three years at his alma mater. Missouri went 3-15, 3-15 and 2-16 in SEC play. To be fair, Anderson inherited a program left in NCAA trouble by his predecessor Frank Haith.
The 46-year-old Martin had a proven track record before arriving in Columbia. A bruising forward for Gene Keady at Purdue, Martin was 61-41 in three seasons at Missouri State. His teams went 50-21 his last two years. He went 63-41 in three years at Tennessee, including a Sweet 16 appearance.
Perhaps tired of a fan base that missed former UT coach Bruce Pearl, Martin left for California, where he went 62-39 in three years, including an NCAA Tournament berth his second season.
[Kansas City Star: How Missouri can beat Kentucky for the first time]
Martin’s teams are known for being tough, physical teams that rebound well and play great defense. “They try to beat you up,” said UK assistant coach Tony Barbee on Friday.
After the team’s win in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday, Alabama coach Avery Johnson tipped his hat to the Tigers. “The physicality of Missouri just overwhelmed us from start to finish,” he said.
3. Missouri has been without its star recruit, Michael Porter, Jr.
The consensus No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2018 has played all of two minutes for the Tigers. Porter was diagnosed with a back injury in November that required surgery. He has just started traveling with the team but has not returned to practice, said Martin.
Porter was part of a heralded Missouri recruiting class that included C.J. Roberts, Blake Harris, Jeremiah Tilmon and Porter’s younger brother, Jontay, who reclassified to play with his sibling. Their father, Michael Porter, Sr., is an assistant on Martin’s staff.
Roberts, a 6-foot guard from Irving, Texas, was to be redshirted this season before he announced his intentions to transfer. After playing 14 games, including nine starts, Harris also announced that he was transferring. Like Michael Porter, Jr., Harris had originally signed with Washington before asking for his release when head coach Lorenzo Romar was fired.
Tilmon, a 6-10 forward from East St. Louis, had originally signed with Illinois before receiving his release when head coach John Groce was fired. Tilmon has started all 22 games, averaging 8.3 points and 4.2 rebounds.
Jontay Porter, a 6-11 forward, has started six of 22 games and is averaging 8.1 points and 6.5 rebounds. He came off the bench to score 13 points at Alabama. He has a pair of double-doubles this season with 11 points and 11 rebounds against Emporia State and 15 points and 10 rebounds against Georgia.
4. Missouri has been operating short-handed of lately
In addition to the transfers of Roberts and Harris, Martin has been without backup point guard Terrence Phillips, who is indefinitely suspended while the subject of a Title IX investigation. That has left Missouri with just eight scholarship players.
According to reports, at least four women have filed complaints against Phillips. One Missouri student told the Kansas City Star that Phillips allegedly filmed their sexual encounter without her consent.
“There are two sides to every story,” Phillips told the Star.
The 5-11 junior played in 20 games before the suspension, averaging 2.5 points and 1.8 assists.
Martin has been using Jordan Geist and Connor Vanleer at the point. Geist had been the ecent starter until the Alabama game when Martin with Vanleer, who was credited with holding star Bama freshman John Petty to just one field goal.
5. Missouri is on the NCAA Tournament bubble
The Tigers are 14-8 overall and one of six SEC teams that are 4-5 in league play. The win at Alabama snapped a three-game losing streak.
Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology for ESPN has Missouri as the first team listed among the “first four out” of the 68-team bracket. CBS’ Jerry Palm has Missouri as a No. 9 seed in the East Region in his latest projected brackets.
The Tigers are currently No. 31 in the RPI with a strength of schedule ranked 14. (UK is 12th in the RPI.) Jeff Sagarin’s computer has Missouri at No. 42. (UK is 15th.) Ken Pomeroy has Missouri at No. 43, with a No. 37 adjusted offensive efficiency ranking and a No. 72 adjusted defensive efficiency ranking. (UK is 27/47/27.)
As it stands now, Kentucky is the only ranked team remaining on the Missouri schedule. The Cats are 21st in the AP poll. And this is the first two games between the two schools. Mizzou visits Rupp on Feb. 24. First, however, the Tigers get UK at home where Mizzou is 9-2 on the season. Its only home losses were to Florida (77-75) and Auburn (91-73).
Kentucky at Missouri
When: Saturday, 2 p.m. ET
Where: Mizzou Arena in Columbia, MO
TV: CBS with Ian Eagle and Bill Raftery
Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt
Missouri men’s basketball 2017-18
vsLong Beach St
Stephen F. Austin