LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky is looking for its second victory without injured center Nerlens Noel, and to add another quality win to its postseason credentials.
The Wildcats (18-8, 9-4 Southeastern Conference) get their chance Saturday night against Missouri (19-7, 8-5).
Kentucky's goal is to win its final five SEC games and boost its chances of earning an at-large NCAA tournament bid — if needed.
After Missouri, Kentucky still has to get past Arkansas and first-place Florida, the only teams with winning records left on the Wildcats' schedule. But the defending national champions say they are only focused on a Missouri squad looking to build on its victory Tuesday over fifth-ranked Florida.
The Wildcats don't have much room for error — they have only one win over a ranked opponent, 87-74 against then 16th-ranked Mississippi — but regained some of their confidence in Wednesday night's 74-70 win over Vanderbilt. They hope to boost their self-esteem even more in the marquee matchup of ESPN's "Game Day."
"It's a game that we need to win," Kentucky guard Archie Goodwin said. "At this point in the season, that's how it is for a majority of teams. We're just one of those teams that's up against it right now and we've got to go out there and prove that we belong."
Kentucky needs to continue to prove it can win again without Noel, sidelined for the season after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament against Florida on Feb. 12. The 6-foot-10 freshman shot blocker was courtside on Wednesday night, and his presence helped inspire his teammates to bounce back from a blowout loss at Tennessee.
The Wildcats' played their most efficient game in a while, an effort they hope to duplicate against Missouri.
They committed just seven turnovers, outscored the Commodores 38-24 in the paint and outrebounded them 36-30. Despite allowing Vanderbilt to close within two late in the game, Kentucky didn't wilt as several players responded to the challenge to preserve the victory.
No one was more of a factor than 7-foot freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein, whose two blocks nine seconds apart in the final minute thwarted the Commodores' comeback. He rejected three shots overall, to go along with a career-high 20 points and seven rebounds — serving notice Kentucky still has a post presence even with Noel sidelined.
"We needed good things to happen. We need to continue to have good things to happen," Wildcats coach John Calipari said Friday. "Willie said, 'as long as everybody does their thing, I can do my thing. But you can't just throw me the ball after you don't want to make a play and say, go ahead, do something. I can't play that way...'
"Well, guess what? That's what we've been begging from guys. I need my point guard to play that way, but I need Archie and Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer and Jarrod Polson, we need them all to play that way."
Spreading the floor offensively helped get the guards more involved and the move seemed to ignite sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow, a non-factor the previous two games. Earlier in the week Harrow went to Calipari and asked to start again. And after he re-joined the starting group, he redeemed himself with 12 points and four of the Wildcats' 14 assists. For one game at least, his performance helped restore the guard play that had been missing for the Wildcats.
Goodwin, Kentucky's leading scorer averaging 13.7 points, also bounced back with 16 points on 7 of 14 shooting and three assists. Julius Mays added nine points and a team-high six assists, which could help renew Big Blue Nation's faith in a backcourt that has battled inconsistency all season.
"It's the way I like to play and it's the way the guards like to play because we can work the floor," Poythress said of Kentucky's new look.
Kentucky will need that same quality of guard play to contain 5-11 Missouri junior Phil Pressey, who's averaging 11.8 points, 6.7 assists and 1.9 steals per game. The SEC assists leader is part of a potent Tigers offense with every starter averaging double figures in points, led by guard Jabari Brown (14.5) and forward Laurence Bowers (14.2).
Missouri didn't need that much offense to beat Florida 63-60 and improve to 15-0 at home. While it was another quality win for the Tigers, coach Frank Haith insisted his team needs another one and especially on the road since they're 1-6 in away games.
With Missouri and Kentucky having similar urgency, Saturday night could be interesting.
"We've got to try to continue and fight like we're not in either," Haith said. "We need a great quality road win and we haven't had that yet. So, it's important to continue to establish ourselves and put ourselves in position to have our names called on that Selection Sunday.
"We're right in the same boat as those guys too."