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Cats once again taking 'most important game on our schedule' approach into Mizzou

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Willie Cauley-Stein enters Saturday's game against Missouri coming off a career-high 20-point game. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein enters Saturday's game against Missouri coming off a career-high 20-point game. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Save for a new highlight or two, the intro video that will be shown just before starting lineups are announced on Saturday is going to the same as the one shown before Vanderbilt. Ryan Harrow and Willie Cauley-Stein are still going to start it off by saying, "Tonight...is the biggest game on our schedule."

And that will be true, but not because ESPN College GameDay is in town. It won't be because it's a must-win according to NCAA Tournament prognosticators either.

The game against Missouri is the biggest on the schedule because it's the next one.

"It's a big game because it's the next one on our schedule," John Calipari said. "But guess what? After this game, the next one is a big game because it's the next one on the schedule."

But Mississippi State doesn't come in town for another few days, so the Wildcats (18-8, 9-4 Southeastern Conference) are training their focus solely on a matchup with Missouri (19-7, 8-5 SEC) at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. The Rupp Arena crowd will likely be rambunctious for the primetime tip-off, but the Tigers have the kind of experience needed to survive such an environment, as well as a strong backcourt led by point guard Phil Pressey - the SEC's leader in assists at 6.9 per game.

"He's a great player," Calipari said. "He's really effective and efficient, doesn't turn it over that much, goes in that lane and finds people. He can score it when he needs to, but his whole thing is, 'I'm going to get in here - I'll drive baseline and hit that corner; I'll drive right and throw it over my left shoulder and hit a guy on the weak side for a 3.' "

That guard play hasn't yielded the road wins one might expect - Missouri is just 1-6 this season in away games - but Pressey, Earnest Ross, Keion Brown and Jabari Brown will provide a stiff test.

Just a few days ago, the chances of UK's backcourt passing it looked slim. Julius Mays had played consistently well, but Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin were struggling mightily. In losses at Florida and Tennessee, Harrow and Goodwin combined for 15 points on 6-of-23 shooting, eight assists and 10 turnovers.

Against Vanderbilt, they looked like different players. Goodwin scored 16 points and shot 50 percent from the field, much more effectively toeing the line between aggressiveness and recklessness. Harrow, meanwhile, had 12 points, five rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers in a return to the starting lineup - a move he prompted himself by asking Coach Cal.

"He played with a lot of confidence," Goodwin said. "Once he plays with confidence, that's when he's probably the best point guard in the nation because he's very hard to guard off the dribble and he do so many different things."

Harrow's certainly going to need confidence in going toe-to-toe with Pressey, though Goodwin has enough to go around.

"It's going to be a lot on the guards because this is like a playmaker game basically," Goodwin said. "And so we just have to go out there with the mindset that we're the better guards - because we are - and just prove it and show we're here for a reason."

For all the talk of the outcome being decided on the perimeter, the battle in the paint should not be overlooked. Missouri is a far different team from the one last year that won 30 games in spite of spotty rebounding with ultra-efficient first-shot offense. With the addition of transfers Alex Oriakhi and Tony Criswell, the Tigers are among the best in the nation on the boards.

"This team attacks the glass," Calipari said. "If we ball-watch, you get beat. You have no chance of beating them. If you don't physically check out, if you're ball-watching, they're sending three."

They are also one of the nation's most balanced rebounding teams, and in more than one way. Oriakhi - who considered UK after transferring away from UConn during the offseason - leads the way at 8.6 rebounds per game, but the other six Tigers who play 19.6 minutes or more per game average at least 3.3 boards apiece, even the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Pressey.

Mizzou also gets it done on both ends of the floor. The Tigers are ninth in the nation in offensive-rebounding percentage (39.7) and 22nd in the nation in defensive-rebounding percentage (72.8), making them one of only three teams nationally to rank in the top 25 nationally in both categories along with Quinnipiac and Colorado State.

"If you're not physical on the post, you're going to get chucked," Calipari said. "You'd better be down and ready. They're a good team."

Without Nerlens Noel - their top rebounder - the Cats are going to have to get it done as a team on the glass as they did against Vandy. All seven players who were on the floor for double-digit minutes grabbed at least three rebounds in that game.

Goodwin was in that group with his six rebounds. He'll be looking to continue his solid work on the glass and for his team to take another step forward on a national stage.

"I think this is definitely a game that we can make a statement in," Goodwin said. "We came back with a strong win the other day after a loss at Tennessee. We're just looking to keep building on what we've been doing."

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