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No. 19 Kentucky begins SEC play at 1-loss Missouri

Dec 21, 2022; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) talks with head coach John Calipari during the first half against the Florida A&M Rattlers at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center. Mandatory Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky coach John Calipari is bringing a lengthy to-do list as the No. 19 Wildcats begin Southeastern Conference play at Missouri on Wednesday night.

The Wildcats (8-3) have lost to Michigan State, Gonzaga and UCLA. They most recently defeated Florida A&M 88-68 last Wednesday, but they led by just seven points with 5:35 left and Calipari was vexed by his team’s defense.

“We’ve got work to do now. We do,” Calipari said after the game. “We didn’t defend today like we’ve been defending. It’s crazy. I mean, the one thing that we could rely on is that we would really, really guard. Well, they beat us on the bounce, they beat us shooting threes, they beat us offensive rebounding.”

Now Kentucky must travel to Columbia, Mo., to face the tough Tigers (11-1, 0-0 SEC) as Missouri comes off a 93-71 neutral-court upset of then-No. 16 Illinois on Thursday.

“We didn’t play well. I’m dead serious,” Missouri coach Dennis Gates said. “I don’t think we played well. And I’ll continue to challenge my guys. I want to execute on the things we need to execute for 40 minutes. … We’re obviously excited about the direction we’re going, but there are small things that you may not see with the naked eye that I see that we did not execute in a great way. And I’m gonna continue to challenge our guys.”

The Wildcats are anchored by center Oscar Tshiebwe, who is averaging 15 points and 13 rebounds per game. Guard Cason Wallace is averaging 11.8 points and 4.4 assists and is 22 of 44 from 3-point range.

“We’ve got to keep working with him as he plays point,” Calipari said. “Decision-making, seeing the court better. What he did today is he made shots so you couldn’t go under on the pick-and-roll. He dings a ball in.”

Sahvir Wheeler (8.8 points, 6.6 assists per game) gives Kentucky a natural point guard for the lead role, and Antonio Reeves (12.8 ppg) is a 43.7 percent shooter from beyond the arc.

“Combinations matter with this group,” Calipari said. “We’re going to have to have some good combinations. We’re still a work in progress, and I would tell everybody, just be patient … it takes time to get it all together, and I’m not panicked.”

But Calipari is concerned about his team’s free-throw shooting.

“We should be one of the best free-throw shooting teams,” he said. “That is mental toughness. In the Power Five (and) Gonzaga games, we’re shooting 58 percent from the foul line. Fifty-eight percent. You can’t win games shooting 58 percent.”

Missouri has a guard-driven team led by D’Moi Hodge, who averages 16.7 points a game and is shooting 42 percent from 3-point range. The Tigers don’t have a true center, so the task of guarding Tshiebwe will largely fall to forward Kobe Brown, who had 31 points, eight assists, five rebounds and four steals against Illinois.

“I’m proud of Kobe being able to have a breakout game, which was coming for him,” Gates said. “I just saw a level of focus that he had.”

The Tigers will need to get sturdy games from forwards Noah Carter (10.8 ppg) and Ronnie DeGray III, who has worked his way into the rotation.

Missouri’s only loss this season was 95-67 to then-No. 6 Kansas on Dec. 10.

–Field Level Media