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By LARRY VAUGHT
Beating Missouri could be a NCAA Tournament resume-building win for Kentucky Saturday. However, Missouri coach Frank Haith says UK is not the only team battling to try and get into the tourney.
“I think we need the same thing, too. I think we’re all trying to improve our resume,” said Haith Thursday. “I’m not looking at it in terms of what we need to do to build our resume, but we’ve got to try to continue to fight like we’re not in, either, and we need a great quality road win, and we haven’t had that yet. We’re right in the same boat with those guys, too.”
Missouri is coming off a signature win over Florida, but still is 19-7 overall and 8-5 in Southeastern Conference play — or one game behind UK in the conference. The Tigers have lost at Mississippi, Florida, LSU, Texas A&M and Arkansas in conference play.
“I think most teams do play better at home. LSU, Texas A&M and Arkansas we could easily have won, and didn’t. Hopefully we will get some road wins,” Haith said. “We are more aggressive at home and need to be the same way on the road.”
Haith said he is “hopeful” that momentum from the win over Florida, which beat Missouri by 31 points on Jan. 19, will carry over to Saturday’s ESPN GameDay contest.
“It’s great that we won that game, because we’ve been playing pretty good. We just want to stay humble and stay hungry,” Haith said.
Haith admitted he has not really looked at how Kentucky was playing before center Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury. Instead, he’s concentrating on what UK did at Tennessee and then in Wednesday’s win over Vanderbilt.
“I’ve just focused on the last two in terms of executing the things they’ve done earlier. They look different in their lineup in terms of how they play, and I’ve just focused on that a little bit,” Haith said. “They’re really athletic.
“(Julius) Mays and (Kyle) Wiltjer can shoot the ball, but they’re going to put the ball on us, they’re going to get out in transition, and we’ve go to get back and set our defense. Especially in that building, they’re going to run the ball. Our transition defense hasn’t been great (and) that’s been my biggest concern, is our ability to get back and set our defense.”
Missouri’s balanced offense has six players averaging in double figures — the Tigers average 76 points per game. Guard Jabari Brown, who hit a key 3-pointer late in the win over Florida, is a 37 percent shooter from 3-point range. Forward Laurence Bowers seems back at full strength after missing five games with an injury. He’s second on the team with 23 blocked shots.
“Bowers back just adds an additional challenge,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “He is just a force. He is obviously very physical and is capable of playing inside and outside. He gives them a different dimension and obviously is one of their leaders. They are a totally different team with him.”
Haith said Bowers is still not playing as well as he was before he was injured and the Tigers need him to focus on more than scoring.
“Be a good passer, defender and rebounder. Scoring will take care of itself,” Haith said.
Center Alex Oriakhi, a transfer from Connecticut who considered coming to UK, is a 58.2 percent shooter from the field and has a team-high 41 blocked shots. He also leads the Tigers in rebounding.
“He has been great. He did not get enough touches in some games,” Haith said.
The Missouri coach also said Oriakhi has been in foul trouble, especially on the road, and that has limited his aggressiveness.
“But he has been terrific. He’s become a more consistent scorer, rebounds at a high level. We can throw to him in the paint and positive things happen,” Haith said.
Haith’s major issue Thursday was dealing with the snow storm hitting the area. He had his director of basketball operations out picking up players for practice and hoped to have most of the players in the gym. He was also still hopeful the team could fly to Lexington Friday.
“We’re looking forward to another great opportunity for our young men. I’ve got a lot of respect for coach Cal and what he’s accomplished and who he is as a coach,” Haith said.