Missouri men’s basketball opens Southeastern Conference play with a matchup against No. 17 Kentucky on Saturday afternoon at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.
Missouri enters 2020 with an 8-4 record, fresh off a 63-56 Braggin’ Rights victory over Illinois two weeks ago — its second straight triumph in the series.
Kentucky is 9-3 on the season, including a win over No. 7 Louisville last weekend.
Tigers head coach Cuonzo Martin met with local media Friday morning before his team flew to its first of nine SEC road games.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Reporter: How much emphasis do you put on the first game of SEC play and what it means to set the tone for the rest of the schedule?
Martin: “I think every game is important. It’s league play, so you’ve got a lot of games, ups and downs, highs, lows, learn from different teams. League play is of course different, because No. 1 you’re trying to win a league, and you’re talking about a talented program (Kentucky) that’s been good for the history of that program. (But) it’s really just a game. You have to look at it, is it a very important game? I don’t put anything more on it than it’s a basketball game. You have every right to win the game. These are the things that we have to do to win the game. I keep it as simple as that.”
Having played a few nonconference road games, how helpful can those be, especially for young guys who haven’t played at Rupp Arena yet?
“With respect to all other places, I think this is probably a different level, just from the standpoint of the history behind it and all those things. Not to take anything away from other programs. But for me as a player, I enjoyed playing on the road — whatever the environment was. You enjoy it. You look forward to it. I think the focus level, at least for me, was better or greater when I was on the road because I had minimal distractions on the road. Just the task at hand. I think that’s the beauty of it. To have the opportunity to beat a team in front of 20,000-plus in a road game, that’s a great feeling. I hope our players are looking forward to that.”
Do you expect to have junior center Jeremiah Tilmon (missed win over Chicago State on Monday due to foot injury) available to play against Kentucky on Saturday?
“If he’s good to go, yeah.”
How would you describe the challenge Kentucky freshman guard Tyrese Maxey (14 ppg, 4 rpg, 3 apg) presents?
“He can score the ball, he can shoot, he can drive, he gets out in transition. He does a good job of running off those baseline screens and reading screens. For a young guy, he does a good job doing that. He can make shots, he can put the ball on the floor. I would classify him as a legitimate scorer.”
What are some of the things junior forward Mitchell Smith (4 ppg, 4 rpg, played 35 minutes against Illinois) has shown you to earn more of a consistent role?
“I think his ability to defend multiple positions. He’s truly a guy you can say, well, he can defend 1 through 5. He takes pride in playing defense. He enjoys the excitement of getting a stop, getting a charge, getting a steal, being aggressive. His offense is better than probably what he’s shown the last couple games, especially making that 3-point shot. Another guy that can move the ball and help offensively to get it where it needs to go, and on the defensive side of the ball, where there’s a breakdown, he can cover up your breakdowns.”
After the win over Illinois, you said your team could still get 25% better on defense. What exactly do you mean by that?
“A lot of little things. I think the effort has improved. Not to say the effort wasn’t there in the beginning, but I just think you hit that three-game patch where we were trying to find our way as a team. I think they understand the importance of defending and identifying roles in order for our team to be successful. The 25%, I was throwing a number out there. It could’ve been 30%, it could’ve been 19%. But I think it really comes down to every time down, completing the block out. It’s the mental things. It’s just funny, one of our GAs sent me a video of me from when I played. It was late in the game, late in the season, and I missed the block out. It happens every time down. Can I focus on every possession every time down? That’s a hard thing to do. Am I prepared for this scouting report? Do I switch this ball screen? Every possession down. It’s exhausting. When the season is over, you should be exhausted. It should have been like you lift weights every day and you have nothing left in you. That’s what we try to get our guys to the point where everything you have you have to put into every possession every time down until the buzzer sounds.”