By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON— Kentucky is starting over.
The 17th-ranked Wildcats (9-3) return to the court Saturday and will take on Missouri in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams. The beginning of conference play signals a fresh start for Kentucky.
“It’s conference play, everybody tries to play their best,” Kentucky junior Nick Richards said. “This is where everybody tries to get into the (NCAA) tournament.”
Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee agreed and said the ups and downs of the first 12 encounters won’t be a factor against league opponents, especially the Tigers, who carry a four-game winning streak into the contest.
“What you did in the non-conference does not matter when you start conference play,” he said Friday. “(It) doesn’t matter who you played, doesn’t matter their records, the schedules. You throw them out the window and anybody can beat anybody on any night on any court, home or away, so he (coach John Calipari) just wanted to get these guys back refocused coming off a good win against Louisville, and now we just wanted to move on to what’s ahead of us, and that starts with Missouri.”
Richards and freshman Tyrese Maxey were impressive in leading the Wildcats to a 78-70 overtime win over No. 7 Louisville last week. Richards scored 13 points — seven in a row in overtime — and Maxey scored a career-high 27 to help Kentucky end a two-game losing streak.
Maxey has scored 25 or more points in two non-conference contests, but is looking forward to his first experience of competing against SEC foes.
“They just say the atmosphere is a lot crazier,” Maxey said. “Going on the road is different. But they just say you gotta stay locked in. We’re just going to be watching a lot more film, staying locked in, staying more focused and just trying to win every game. Every game counts.”
Barbee said conference games are different because of the competitive nature, making the task of winning games even more difficult.
“There are so many veteran teams, veteran coaches in this league that when teams go on the road, they’re not intimidated by, say, our arena or our atmosphere or our tradition because they come here every year, as opposed to non-conference play,” Barbee said. “Missouri has some really good veterans, veteran players so they’re not going to be intimidated by what we bring to the table. So, our guys, if we play how we play we’ll be fine, but we can’t be looking backward and we can’t be looking ahead. We have to be focused on what is in front of you because they’re going to come to play.”
Kentucky has spent more time on the practice floor ahead of the league opener and Maxey said the Wildcats have been “going pretty hard” and “going at each other like we always do.”
“It’s been really good for us,” he said. “Competition is always good in practice because we have really good players going against other really good players. So, when it’s time for the game we’re ready to play.”
Maxey said the plan is to be able to consistently “beat the practice” on a daily basis.
“I feel like that’s what we’ve been doing these last couple days, is beating the practice,” he said. “He puts together a tough practice plan and we just go at it and we go out and attack it and try to beat it.”
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Gametracker: Missouri at Kentucky, 2 p.m. Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.