COLUMBIA, Mo. — After playing nonconference games at Temple and Xavier and three neutral-site contests in Kansas City and St. Louis, Cuonzo Martin would like to think his Missouri basketball team is prepared for life on the road in the Southeastern Conference.
But he knows Saturday’s league opener takes the Tigers to a different stratosphere.
With only two players who have played at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, Martin’s team is about to experience baptism by blue.
“With respect to the other places, this is a different level just from the standpoint of the history behind it,” Martin said Friday before his team left Columbia for Lexington, Ky., where the Tigers (8-4) and No. 17 Kentucky (9-3) tip off league play at 1 p.m. (St. Louis time) on the SEC Network. “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. You have minimal distractions on the road, just the task at hand.
“I think that's the beauty of it. Then the opportunity to be the team (in front of) 20,000-plus to win a road game. That's a great feeling.”
It’s a feeling Missouri has never experienced: The Tigers are 0-4 at Rupp Arena, the cavernous 44-year-old barn in downtown Lexington, home to 23,500 blue and white screaming maniacs every time their beloved Wildcats take the court. Of Martin’s current players, only senior center Reed Nikko and junior center Jeremiah Tilmon have logged minutes at Rupp, both in MU’s 87-66 loss on Feb. 24, 2018. Martin was 0-3 at Kentucky as Tennessee’s coach from 2011-14.
Junior guard Mark Smith was recruited heavily by Kentucky — Wildcats coach John Calipari made a visit to his home in Edwardsville — but like the rest of Mizzou’s guards, Saturday’s showdown will be his first game experience at Rupp.
“We just got to stay composed, just do what we do, follow Coach Martin, stick to the scouting report, just like play to our strengths,” Smith said. “Rupp Arena is going to be a big crowd. It's exciting. You grow up watching Kentucky basketball games. But we’ve got to go in focused, do what we practice and act like it’s a normal game.”
“We're all just locked and ready,” sophomore guard Xavier Pinson said. “We're not taking any different approach in the game. We’re just scratching the name off their chest, balling up our fists and we’re going for a fight.”
The SEC schedule makers might have done Mizzou a favor. Calipari’s five-star freshmen-loaded teams have historically played their best basketball late in the season, not necessarily in early January. Kentucky lost last year’s SEC opener at Alabama. Two years ago the Wildcats lost three of their first seven league games. In 2015, the year UK finished 38-1 and didn’t lose until the national championship game, Ole Miss took the Cats to overtime in the SEC opener, and four days later UK needed two overtimes to outlast Texas A&M.
As much pressure as the Tigers might carry facing the league’s preeminent program, the pressure never relents in Lexington, especially in a season that’s already seen UK lose at home to a middling mid-major conference opponent (Evansville) and drop consecutive nonconference games for the first time since 2012. UK lost to Utah and Ohio State in Las Vegas before recovering with Saturday’s win over rival Louisville.
“I coach at this place called Kentucky where everything is life or death around us,” Calipari said this week. “I’m trying to get the players worried about getting better. This isn’t college football where if you lose three or four or five games early you’re done. It’s about how you get your team playing their best and in the right frame of mind in March.”
“This is a different deal here,” he added. “It’s not us playing with a veteran team of players who are seniors and juniors. … I knew the schedule would be hard. You lose some games you think you can win and win some games you think you can lose and now all of a sudden you’re in league play. What I’m trying to explain to my players is league play is totally different from nonconference play.”
With his team on a four-game winning streak, Martin isn’t fazed by facing Kentucky first in league play or two months from now.
“Man, it’s just what it is,” he said. “You can’t run from this league. However you do it you do it. You’ve got to face it at some point. I wouldn't have it any other way.”