Things had been a little gloomy around the Joe Craft Center.
First, Kentucky lost freshman Nerlens Noel for the season. Then it got clobbered at Tennessee. It got so bleak that John Calipari turned to dodgeball to lighten his Wildcats' spirits.
Add a win against Vanderbilt on Wednesday, and suddenly things are looking up a little as Kentucky (18-8, 9-4 Southeastern Conference) prepares to host Missouri (19-7, 8-5) on Saturday.
And it's about time.
"The basic thing is, you got to take everything off the table," Calipari said Friday. "Play. We have no excuses, no cop-outs. No one wants to hear it. Play. We have an opportunity. We have enough. We're a good enough team. We're just going to have to play."
Calipari said there are "thousands" of coaches out of the business who'd like to feel the anxiety he's been feeling this season, with his roster uncertainty and Kentucky's ups and downs.
An exaggeration, perhaps, but the point is, Calipari wants UK to stop feeling sorry for itself.
Things aren't so dire, at least as he sees it.
Sure, Kentucky's on the NCAA Tournament bubble. It's not alone.
"There may be 20 teams from this year's tournament that wouldn't have got in last year's, wouldn't have got in the tournament," Calipari said. "It's a bell curve. We just got to take care of business, play our best, get better, play game to game, not worry about what's going on around us and do our thing."
Calipari said he's trying to shield his players from must-win talk, from any sense that they're in desperation mode. He wants his Wildcats to focus on getting better.
He doesn't view time as running out.
"I just laugh when I'm hearing all this, 'The biggest game. You've got to win every game,'" Calipari said. "Is anybody else out there like this or just Kentucky?"
The Cats aren't alone.
Missouri coach Frank Haith said he views the Tigers as in much the same position. The Cats won't be the only team clawing for selection committee attention Saturday night in Rupp Arena, he said.
"I'm not looking at it 'do we have enough or don't have enough?'" Haith said. "I think we've got to continue to fight like we're not in either. I think we need a great quality road win. We haven't had that yet, so it's important for us to continue to establish ourselves and put us in position to have our names called out on that (Selection) Sunday. So, we're right in the same boat with those guys."
Both teams are coming off critical wins, Missouri's because it gave the Tigers an important victory against a ranked opponent and Kentucky's because it lifted the spirits of a team that was down in the dumps.
"It just (got) us thinking positive," forward Alex Poythress said. "We were thinking a little negative, but now we're just thinking positive. We can do this and we're going to try our best to do this."
Haith said Kentucky looked "a lot more relaxed" against Vanderbilt, its second game without Noel. He expects to get UK's "best shot," he said, when it plays its third against his team Saturday.
"It's a big game," UK guard Archie Goodwin said. "I think this is definitely a game we can make a statement in. 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."
Calipari wants that, too.
But he doesn't want his Cats to obsess over the magnitude of Saturday's ESPN GameDay game.
At this point, what game isn't?
"This is not the end-all game," Calipari said. "It's a big game because it's the next one on our schedule. But guess what? After this game, the next one is a big game because it's the next one on the schedule. Like I said, there's a lot of teams out there right now trying to find themselves."
Site: Rupp Arena (23,000), Lexington, Ky.
TV: ESPN (Dan Shulman play by play, Dick Vitale analyst, Samantha Poder sideline).
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst); Sirius 128/XM 200.
Favorite: Kentucky by 3
Series record: Kentucky leads 4-0
At Lexington: Kentucky leads 2-0
Coaches' records: Calipari 1-2 vs. Missouri; Haith 1-0 vs. Kentucky
Last meeting: Kentucky 70, Missouri 53, Dec. 30, 1999, New Orleans.
Jamaal Malgoire had 21 points and 13 rebounds as the Wildcats beat the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl Classic at the New Orleans Arena. UK shot 48 percent and held Mizzou to 31 percent, including 7-for-26 three-point shooting. J.P. Blevins had 13 points for Kentucky, and Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans scored 12 points each. Keyon Dooling led Missouri with 19 points. Jeff Hafer added 12 and Clarence Gilbert 11.
Keys to the Game
1. Flip Dishes: The man who makes Mizzou go is point guard Phil Pressey. Nicknamed "Flip," the junior already tops Missouri's all-time assist list with 519. Pressey's 19-point, 19-assist game earlier this season was the first in basketball (pro or college) since John Stockton did it for the Utah Jazz in the 1990-91 season. The 19 assists were the most in a college game since Mateen Cleaves had 20 for Michigan State in 2000. Pressey also is turnover prone. His 97 turnovers this season already are a career high, and he has seven games with at least five turnovers this season.
2. After Halftime: Kentucky can't relax if it builds a first-half lead like it did against Vanderbilt on Wednesday. Missouri has been a strong second-half team all season. The Tigers, who are outscoring opponents 901-801 in the first half, have outscored them 1,068-899 in second halves. Mizzou is averaging 41.1 points per second half and is shooting 38.7 percent from the floor, 36.3 percent from three-point range and 78.2 percent from the free-throw line in the second half this season. All three numbers are higher than the Tigers' overall season percentages.
3. Road Wearier: Mizzou has been one of the nation's best teams at home with a 15-0 record, including a win on Tuesday against Florida. The Tigers haven't been so bad on neutral sites, either, going 3-1 with a win against Illinois. But road games have been less kind to Missouri. The Tigers are 1-6 in true road games, the lone win coming against Mississippi State. Mizzou has lost some close games on the road (73-70 at LSU, 73-71 at Arkansas) but also has been the victim of some blowouts (64-49 at Ole Miss, 83-52 at Florida).