A pair of college basketball blue bloods will square off on Saturday when the No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks travel to Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, to battle the No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats.
All 10 games in the annual SEC/Big 12 Challenge series are set to tip off on Saturday — the Big 12 continues to own bragging rights over the SEC with wins in each of the event’s first three seasons — but the “Best Game” of the challenge is undoubtedly the top 5 matchup between Kansas and Kentucky.
Kansas comes into the bout with Kentucky having won 18 of its first 20 games to start the season. No one is still thinking about KU’s season-opening loss to Indiana, but a decisive defeat at the hands of West Virginia on Tuesday (85-69) could give some reason to question the Jayhawks.
Fact of the matter is, when a team loses the shooting, rebounding and turnover battles, there’s little else to expect other than the short side of the scoreboard. Nonetheless, the loss highlights a bigger issue: Kansas’ lack of depth and scoring in the frontcourt. Case in point, Kansas’ big men scored only four of the team’s 69 points in the loss.
Granted, a few hiccups are to be expected in the Big 12 (or any conference), but one loose thread, albeit a major one, is not going to unravel the entire yarn that the Jayhawks have spun to this point in the year. Nonetheless, matchups with West Virginia and Kentucky will be capped off by a battle with Baylor on Feb. 1, so there’s little time for Kansas to lick its wounds.
On the other side of the ball, Kentucky fans are likely just as puzzled by their team’s most recent misstep against the Volunteers of Tennessee (82-80). Yes, it’s now two years in a row that Kentucky has faltered in a trip to Knoxville, but the Wildcats of a year ago are a vastly different team than this year’s rambunctious bunch.
That said, there’s still no excuse for not bringing your A-game. And the Wildcats suffered turning the ball over 14 times on the night and shooting just 25 percent (6-of-24) from 3-point range. But that’s not to take anything away from Tennessee and senior guard Robert Hubbs III who poured in 25 points in the win, the school’s first win over an opponent in the top five of the AP Poll since 2010.
There are any number of matchups to keep an eye on in this bout, but the key to victory will lie in controlling the pace to the game. Kentucky loves to get out and run behind Fox and backcourt mate Isaiah Briscoe, so the battles that develop between Kentucky and Kansas’ guard tandem will be huge. The experience factor bodes well for Frank Mason III and Devonte' Graham, but age is just a number.
Another thread to follow will be the battle down low between Kansas’ Landen Lucas and Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo. As the main post presences for their respective squads, there will likely be more than a few encounters between these two in the paint. And last but not least, the wing matchup that could take shape between Josh Jackson and Malik Monk. High-flying, high-scoring, high-octane offense is likely to ensue.
One thing is for sure: When two teams with this type of pedigree do battle on the court, it’s safe to say that a lot of eyeballs will be glued. Let the fireworks begin.
Other notes from the SEC/Big 12 Challenge:
All 10 games in the annual series are set to tip off on Saturday, starting with Texas A&M traveling to Morgantown, West Virginia. The action will be in full swing by midday before KU and UK link up in the night portion of the challenge.
The Big 12 continues to own bragging rights over the SEC with wins in each of the event’s first three seasons, but Kansas and Kentucky aren’t the only AP Top 25 teams taking part, a group that includes: No. 25 Florida, No. 18 West Virginia and No. 5 Baylor.
|Saturday, Jan. 28||Channel||Time|
|Texas A&M at West Virginia||ESPN||12:00 pm ET|
|Florida at Oklahoma||ESPN||2:00 pm ET|
|Kansas State at Tennessee||ESPN2||2:00 pm ET|
|LSU at Texas Tech||ESPNU||2:00 pm ET|
|Texas at Georgia||ESPN||4:00 pm ET|
|Iowa State at Vanderbilt||ESPN2||4:00 pm ET|
|Arkansas at Oklahoma State||ESPNU||4:00 pm ET|
|Kansas at Kentucky||ESPN||6:00 pm ET|
|Baylor at Mississippi||ESPN2||6:00 pm ET|
|Auburn at TCU||ESPNU||6:00 pm ET|
A tale of the tape — Kansas vs. Kentucky
Kansas: 2,204 wins; 14 Final Fours; 3 national titles; 45 NCAA tournament appearances
Kentucky: 2,222 wins; 17 Final Fours; 8 national titles; 55 NCAA tournament appearances
The fact that Kentucky and Kansas are good has got to be old news by now, but visual reminders of the pedigrees for both programs abound. And the fact that both schools habitually draw raucous crowds replete with swarms of famous alumni and celebrities is just the icing on the cake.
Fact of the matter is: Since 1992, there have only been two seasons in which Kentucky and Kansas did not both make the NCAA tournament (in 2009 and 2013, Kentucky accepted an invite to the NIT).
Mind you, Kansas is going for its 28th straight trip to the Big Dance this year. That would break a record held by North Carolina since 2001. UNC’s streak of 27 straight tournament trips began in 1975-76 and came to an end in the 2000-01 campaign.
Saturday’s matchup between Kentucky and Kansas will be the fifth time that the two schools have squared off since the beginning of the 2011-12 season. Here’s a quick look back at those four meetings:
- Regular season 2011-12 — An early-season matchup in the 2011-12 campaign between the No. 2 Wildcats and the No. 12 Jayhawks brought the two squads to New York City to square off in the State Farm Champions Classic. All five UK starters scored in double figures in the 75-65 win, a group that included the likes of Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
- 2012 NCAA tournament — Later on in the 2011-12 season, Kansas got a shot at redemption when they met Kentucky in the national title game. But Lady Luck was not on the Jayhawks' side in this one. Despite a rough night from the field for Davis, the Wildcats would again emerge victorious behind 22 points from Doron Lamb. This time bragging rights and the NCAA championship trophy were the spoils.
- Regular season 2014-15 — After a two-year hiatus, Kansas and Kentucky linked up again. Unfortunately for Jayhawks fans, this one got out of hand early thanks to a 12-0 run from Kentucky. The rest was history, as Kansas shot just 19.6 percent from the field in a 72-40 loss in which the Wildcats saw 16 players receive floor time.
- Regular season 2015-16 — Finally, Kansas found a way to break the mold in the 2015-16 season, but it would require extra basketball and a Herculean effort from Wayne Selden Jr. (33 points). Nonetheless, Kansas emerged victorious 90-84 in overtime with its first win over the Wildcats since a meeting in the 2007 NCAA tournament.