But oh, the agony. Before 19,004 fans, plenty of them for Missouri, the Tigers led 9-0 before falling behind by eight in the second half. With some key Tigers in foul trouble and Bud Walton Arena thundering, Missouri’s chances of winning seemed remote. But the Tigers put together an admirable rally, taking a lead into the final minutes before it all slipped away.
A combination of botched Missouri possessions late, a key missed free throw by Jabari Brown and, sure, some tough calls going against the Tigers resulted in a bitter defeat that’s sure to stoke what may be a budding rivalry.
To have that comeback not end up in a win, to lose an NCAA Tournament resume-boosting win in such fashion and to the Tigers’ former coach, Mike Anderson, is understandably brutal. Let’s just say Tiger fans will have this one in the back of their minds when Arkansas (16-9, 7-5 in SEC play through Sunday) comes to Columbia on March 5.
The Tigers (18-7, 7-5 in SEC play through Sunday) have now avoided falling far behind for back-to-back road games, after racking up double-digit deficits in each of its first four conference road games, all losses.
That will be key on Saturday, when Missouri takes to the road yet again for a big one, at Kentucky (8 p.m. on ESPN). ESPN’s College Gameday preview show will broadcast from Kentucky’s massive, 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, and with both teams needing quality wins for NCAA Tournament position, this should be a fun one.
Kentucky has arguably the strongest tradition of any college basketball program. The Wildcats have the most total wins, most NCAA Tournament appearances and most NCAA Tournament wins in college basketball. Kentucky has 15 Final Four appearances and eight NCAA championships, including the 2012 title. Big Blue has also dominated SEC basketball through the decades, racking up 47 regular season conference titles.
This year’s Kentucky team (17-8, 8-4 in SEC through Sunday) has a lot of young talent, but is scrambling just to make the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats lost Nerlens Noel, who was averaging 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game, for the season in a loss at Florida. In their first game without him, they were hammered 88-58 at Tennessee.
But, lest you feel too sorry for the SEC’s Goliath, the Wildcats still have the services of freshmen Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin and sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. Poythress in particular will need to step up to fill the Noel void inside, especially on defense.
Missouri’s Alex Oriakhi may have some opportunities inside with Noel out, but Missouri’s guards may also benefit by being able to slash to the hoop without him there to knock away their shots.
Missouri has the usual x-factors for this game, including avoiding defensive lapses and getting more of Phil Pressey’s brilliant playmaking and less of his turnovers.
It’s tough to pick against a desperate, talented home team, but either way this should be a fun one.