Mike Maicke | @MJ_Maicke
Since the creation of the Big 12/SEC Challenge in 2013, media and fans alike really had one matchup in mind, the clash of two historical college basketball powerhouses: Kansas and Kentucky.
Last season’s overtime thriller did not disappoint, despite a Kentucky team that was far from its usual self. The Wildcats came into the Fieldhouse ranked a lowly No. 20, far from their usual seemingly reserved spot in the top 10, still played at a high-enough level to get to overtime in Allen Fieldhouse.
If not for former Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr.’s heroic, career-high 33-point effort, Kentucky very easily could have handed Kansas a rare home loss.
Now, the Jayhawks lose their statistically proven best home court advantage and travel to another hostile venue, Rupp Arena, for a heavyweight rematch with Kentucky.
And this time, the Wildcats have a whole new look and come into the contest ranked No. 4 in the nation.
It’ll be physical, it’ll be insanely competitive, and at the end of the day, it will be a signature road win for the second-ranked Jayhawks.
There’s something to be said about the value of an upperclassmen backcourt, which is what Kansas gets with junior guard Devonte' Graham and senior Player of the Year candidate Frank Mason III.
The possession, hell the entire offense, starts with the guards. When you have players who have experienced some of the most raucous environments in college basketball, it leads you to believe the intangibles the Kentucky crowd brings to the game Saturday may be neutralized.
First, let’s talk perimeter scoring. The three-point line, as it typically is, will be an enormous factor in this game. It’s undeniable that the Jayhawks’ frontcourt has been the foremost area of concern, especially after losing freshman forward Udoka Azubuike in the nonconference season.
But what Kansas lacks in the traditional interior scoring, it makes up for on the perimeter. The Jayhawks are shooting an elite 41 percent from beyond the arc this season, while also holding opponents to 35 percent from three. Kansas is led by Mason, who’s shooting a ridiculous 52.8 percent from the three-point line.
Kansas needs to shoot well to win this game, and statistics tell us that they normally do. At this point in the season, there is not a single Jayhawks player shooting under 45 percent from the field.
Rebounding and passing are areas where both teams excel, with the two programs coming in the top 20 in both rebounds per game and assists per game.
But the defense on both sides has been questionable, with Kentucky giving up 72.6 points per game, while Kansas allows 71.
If the Jayhawks can contain the Wildcats’ weapons around Malik Monk, rebound the basketball and shoot a decent percentage from beyond the arc, the Jayhawks will be in a great position to take down an elite team on their own court.
It’ll be one of the best games of the year, and a game that will test the intrinsic value of upperclassman leadership.
Kansas 78, Kentucky 75
Brendan Dzwierzynski | @BrendanDzw
There’s no denying the fact Kansas vs. Kentucky is a marquee game. A showdown between the two winningest programs in the history of the game, both of which are currently top-5 teams in the country.
There’s impressive talent on both sides of the court, and while Kentucky may be a flashier team, Kansas’ veteran leadership and dominance from three-point range establishes the Jayhawks as a national title contender.
In the end, after what should be another thrilling game between these two programs, Kentucky is going to edge past Kansas and pick up the victory.
In all honesty, it wouldn’t be a particularly bad loss for Kansas. First of all, there’s no shame in losing to one of the best teams in the country on the road, especially if it’s a close game.
Secondly, and more importantly, the most important standings will not change regardless of this game’s outcome, and that’s the Big 12 standings. While a loss to Kentucky would be hard to swallow, it doesn’t change anything in conference play, which is what truly counts at this time of year.
As always, the Wildcats roster is stacked with talent, most notably in the backcourt. Freshman guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are two of the most exciting players in the nation this season. Averaging 16.2 and 21.9 points per game, respectively, Fox and Monk create matchup problems for any team they go up against. Undoubtedly, this includes Kansas.
Earlier in the week, Fox’s health was a major concern entering the Big 12/SEC Challenge. However, after playing 25 minutes in Kentucky’s loss on Tuesday versus Tennessee, it appears as though he is ready to go for Saturday.
With that in mind, the two-dimensional threat of Fox and Monk together on the floor could be devastating for a Kansas defense that has allowed some high-scoring performances this year. In front of a home crowd at Rupp Arena, expect a big game from the star Wildcats freshmen.
On the Kansas side of things, this game comes in the middle of the most arduous stretch of the team’s schedule this season, going head-to-head with three top-20 teams in nine days, two of them on the road. After a deflating loss to West Virginia on Tuesday, Kansas has little time to recover for another hard matchup.
Kansas’ main flaw, if it can be called that, is its depth, playing with just a seven-man rotation. That depth could be problematic against Kentucky, which plays nine players at nearly 10 minutes per game or more. The Wildcats will be able to cycle more players off and on the court, while Kansas players run themselves into exhaustion.The Jayhawks’ talent covers this deficiency well, but it will be hard to keep up with a Wildcats team with a similar talent level.
Expect this game to replicate last year’s Big 12/SEC Challenge game between these two storied programs, rather than the 2014 edition in the Champions Classic. Both teams have plenty of talent, and both are legitimate championship contenders, but Kentucky holds the advantage this time, thanks to a home-court advantage and a deeper bench.
Kentucky 81, Kansas 73
— Edited by Ashley Hocking