Road only gets tougher for Missouri after Kentucky loss

Saturday, February 1, 2014 | 8:20 p.m. CST; updated 6:51 a.m. CST, Monday, February 3, 2014
Missouri guard Jabari Brown drives through Kentucky players Andrew Harrison and Julius Randle in Missouri's 84-79 loss Saturday at Mizzou Arena.

COLUMBIA – Rankings are subjective and inherently misleading, for the most part, because so many of the top teams in the country never meet.

But if No. 3 Florida is really eight teams better than No. 11 Kentucky, which got double-digit scoring from four freshmen and withstood 33 points from Jabari Brown to top the Tigers in Columbia on Saturday, then one thing is certain:

Missouri has a tall task ahead of it.

The Tigers will head to Gainesville on Tuesday nursing the stomach-pit-feeling that comes with knowing that even a determined, inspired attack and herculean efforts by its two top players at home could not be enough against an elite opponent.

Kentucky started five freshmen, all projected first-round picks in June's NBA Draft. Florida is built quite differently.

While the Wildcats might have all the 20-and-under talent in the world, the Gators are an experienced group that suffocates opponents with its athleticism on defense and rarely loses games inside "The O'Dome." Florida doesn't have Kentucky's pro potential — in fact, it would be surprising if any Gator were selected in the first round of the draft— but Billy Donovan's team is obviously No. 3 for a reason.

Florida has won 13 consecutive games and has held its past six opponents (all Southeastern Conference foes) to an average of 50.2 points per game. Those are troublesome numbers for a Missouri team that has, at times, looked out of sorts on offense and is overly reliant on the production of its three starting guards.

On Saturday, only two of those guards starred for Missouri. Brown was phenomenal and point guard Jordan Clarkson added 28 points as he tried to will Missouri back in the game after trailing by 16. Guard Earnest Ross, the other usual contributor, was limited by early foul trouble and never found a rhythm.

Meanwhile, Kentucky's young stars didn't disappoint.

Power forward Julius Randle, the biggest prospect of the bunch, went for 18 points and nine rebounds and scored in a variety of ways, from dunks to jumpers to mop-up work around the rim. Small forward James Young made the left-side lane his haven, driving at will and hitting four of seven 3-pointers on his way to 20 points. Then there were the Harrison twins, guards Aaron and Andrew, who combined for 35 points, somehow, somewhat quietly. Aaron Harrison led all Wildcats with 21 points, including a baseline layup with 12.6 seconds left that put the game away for good.

“They have so much talent,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “Those guys will all be playing for pay.”

Maybe Brown will be, too. The Tigers will certainly need him to perform like a future pro against Florida.

Brown is soaring into the national consciousness with his hot shooting, but its unfair to expect new career highs every night — and it's dangerous to live and die on a jump shot that, eventually, has to cool off.

Missouri is in desperate need for some frontcourt production to ease the burden on its talented backcourt.

Brown, Clarkson, Ross and the rest of Haith’s players believe they could beat anybody in the league, and they’ve said as much.

But rankings are about hype, and Kentucky lived up to it Saturday. Now comes a Florida team with even more of it to offer.

So can Missouri salvage a 1-and-1 record from its toughest two-game stretch of the season? Can it position itself more favorably for NCAA Tournament inclusion?

“We have to focus on Florida, one of the best teams in the country,” Haith said. “After playing Kentucky, one of the best teams in the country. It is what it is.”

Supervising editor is Mark Selig.

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