It's always an event when the Kansas Jayhawks and the Kentucky Wildcats meet on the basketball court, and the stakes are always high. This is probably the first time in years that both games have come into the showdown coming off of a loss, so the stakes are a little higher as one fanbase will have to deal with two straight losses and the fear of plummeting NCAA seedings.
After the Tuesday losses, this is now a matchup between #6 Kentucky and #7 Kansas, according to Jerry Palm's RPI rankings. It appears that Kentucky needs the win a bit more as Kansas is 6-1 versus top 50 teams and the Wildcats are 4-2. Kentucky has the more impressive wins as they beat #9 North Carolina and #17 South Carolina while Kansas' best win was over #24 Duke.
While Kentucky and Kansas are the top two winningest programs in college basketball and true blue blood programs, Kentucky has dominated the rivalry, going 22-7 against the Jayhawks. John Calipari has gone 3-1 versus Kansas, and this is the Jayhawks first appearance at Rupp Arena since 2005 when #2 Kansas beat #8 Kentucky 65-59.
The Wildcats have revenge on their mind as they lost to the Jayhawks last year and can't risk losing two games on their home court if they want to entertain dreams of a #1 seed. The Jayhawks now find them even more shorthanded and seemingly desperate after the suspension of Carlton Bragg. Let's meet the Jayhawks.
#0 G - FRANK MASON III (SR 5’11, 190) 19.9 PPG, 5.2 APG, 4.4 RPG
#4 G - DEVONTE’ GRAHAM (JR 6’2, 185) 13.7 PPG, 4.7 APG, 3.0 RPG
#11 G - JOSH JACKSON (FR 6’8, 207) 15,5 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.1 APG
#10 G - SVIATOSLAV MYKHAILIUK (JR 6’8, 205) 10.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.7 APG
#33 F - LANDEN LUCAS (SR 6’10, 250) 7.3 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 0.9 APG
The Jayhawks have what is arguably one of the best backcourts in the nation with the experienced Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham. Mason is battle tested and gritty and has really upped his scoring this year from 12.9 last year. He is one of the best three-point shooters in the country, connecting on 52.8% of his shots. Mason also has an A/TO ratio over 2.0 and averages 1.3 steals and is pesky on defense. Graham is more of a defensive presence and tends to come up big in pressure situations. He has an A/TO ratio of close to 3.0 and 1.6 steals a game. His shooting has declined this year as he hits 39.2% of his three-pointers, down from 44.1% last year.
Josh Jackson may be the best of the lot. The freshman is dynamic on offense and a force defensively and has made quite an impact in his one, and only season at Kansas, He has a great motor and an aggressive rebounder and fills the stat sheet with 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks a game. He is not a consistent three-point threat, hitting just 31.9% but can be a streaky shooter from long range and take over a game.
Due to injuries and other factors, guard Svi Mykhailiuk has been pressed into service at the four spot. He gives the Jayhawks a unique threat as he hits 42.3% of his three-pointers but is a little soft at rebounding and interior defense. He can still hurt you even when the rest of his game is not going well. Against West Virginia, he had seven assists against just one turnover, Landen Lucas has been solid, but not spectacular during his Kansas career. He is an effective scorer near the rim and hits 61.8% of his shots but has limited range. He is a battler on the boards but tends to get into foul trouble.
#2 G - LAGERALD VICK (SO 6’5, 175) 7.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.0 APG
#15 F - CARLTON BRAGG (SO 6’10, 240) 6.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 0.5 APG
#44 F - MITCH LIGHTFOOT (FR 6’8, 210) 1.1 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 0.2 BPG
#22 F - DWIGHT COLEBY (JR 6'9, 240) 1.1 PPG, 1.8 RPG
Here is where we get to the Achille’s Heel of this Jayhawks squad as they have a pretty thin bench. Losing Udoka Azubuike for the season really impacted this team and it is rare to see Bill Self go much more than eight deep, especially now that conference play is going on. With the suspension of Carlton Bragg, the situation goes from bad to dire. While Carlton was wildly inconsistent and was struggling, he was talented and could have provided solid minutes.
LaGerald Vick has stepped it up a bit in his sophomore season and is a pretty solid long-range shooter, hitting 40.7% of his three-pointers. He is on a bit of a cool streak as he has gone 2-9 from long-range over his last four games.
Carlton Bragg was expected to step up this year and fill the void left by Perry Ellis , but that has not happened. He lost his starting spot and averages just 15 minutes a game. He hits 51.1% of his shots but is limited in his range and is a bit soft on his interior defense.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN
The battle in the backcourt will be one of the best ones that you will see all year. On one hand, you have the experience of Kansas coupled with Josh Jackson against the athleticism and potential of the Kentucky guards. While Kansas has experience, Kentucky will have the home court advantage, and Rupp will be electric.
Both teams shoot about the same from the field, but Kansas is a better three-point shooting team than Kentucky (41.8% to 35.3%). To offset that, Kentucky is better at defending the three than Kansas (30.9% to 35.4%), so it all balances out. Rebounding and the A/TO ratios between the teams are pretty balanced, so this shapes up to be a pretty close game.
There is one other notable stat to keep in mind if this is a close game down the stretch and that is that Kentucky is a better free throw shooting team than the Jayhawks. Wildcat fans may fret about the team's 69/1% percentage, but the Jayhawks really struggle at the line with 63.2%. Odds are good that Kentucky fans will go home with a free chicken sandwich, at least.
While the backcourt appears even, Kentucky has a huge advantage in the front court, and this should be a huge game for Bam Adebayo. Expect him to get about 15 shot attempts as he should have a big game. I like Kentucky's bench and front court talent a lot over the Jayhawks and think this can be a good mismatch, especially of Kentucky can get the Kansas starters into foul trouble. Having no Bragg makes this an area that Kentucky must exploit.
In the end, I really like the fact that this is a home game for Kentucky and that they are coming off a loss. I think they will exploit the depth disparity between the teams and I like the way Kentucky has played this season coming off a loss. Kansas may be the best team that Kentucky has faced, but the Wildcats have one of the few backcourts that can hang with the Jayhawks. I really do not see a way that the Jayhawks can overcome the suspensions and the injury in the front court to hang with Kentucky in the paint. It's still going to be a good game, but Bam Adebayo will lead Kentucky to an 88-76 victory.