The Kentucky Wildcats continue their personal gauntlet of a schedule Saturday evening in Rupp Arena as the Kansas Jayhawks pay a visit as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
Tip off is scheduled for 6:00 pm and the game will be televised on ESPN. College GameDay will also be in Lexington as part of the festivities.
For the No. 8 Wildcats (15-3), the game represents another opportunity for the team to continue their march to the postseason and possibly a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. For the No. 9 Jayhawks (16-3), the game has those same traits as well. A win over UK would no doubt boost KU’s national profile.
Kansas is 4-1 in their last five games with wins over Iowa State, Texas, Baylor, and TCU, but they have a bad loss to West Virginia on the road. Kentucky has won their last five games in SEC play with victories over Mississippi State, Auburn, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.
With an opportunity to defeat a third straight ranked opponent and a fellow college blue blood, the staff at A Sea of Blue have assembled around their virtual roundtable to break down the Cats/Hawks matchup and give their takes on the game.
Without question Kentucky is on a roll right now. After their two point loss at Alabama, the Cats have found their identity as a quality defensive team led by national defensive POY candidate Ashton Hagans as well as their individual niches as primary scorers in Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, and PJ Washington. Good times in the LEX for sure.
But make no mistake, Kansas is still Kansas. The Jayhawks practically mirror UK in every major team statistic and have their own share of star power in guards Dedric Lawson and Lagerald Vick.
However, I think KU will struggle inside with the Cats due to the loss of their big man Udoka Azubuike for the season due to a hand injury. The Kentucky bigs have a clear advantage in the post. I look for them to have a big night in the lane on both ends of the floor, and I expect Johnson, Herro, and Hagans to continue their recent strong play.
Prediction: Kentucky 78, Kansas 69
The preseason top-2 teams in the country will face off Saturday. Both teams have faltered a bit early on, but it’s still a top-ten match-up, so this will be a fun one.
The Kansas Jayhawks sit at 16-3, while the Kentucky Wildcats are 15-3. Kansas has some big wins over Michigan State, Tennessee, Marquette, and Villanova. But they also have some not-so-great losses against Arizona State, Iowa State, and West Virginia. They’ve really struggled on the road this season, as the loss at West Virginia shows.
The Jayhawks lost their star big man Udoka Azubuike for the rest of the season. He tore a ligament in his hand, and that’s a big loss. Kentucky would have had no one to guard him, and he would’ve been unstoppable just like last year. But he won’t be available.
However, KU is definitely not short on talent. Their best player is Dedric Lawson, a Memphis transfer, who averages 19.5 points per game and 10.9 rebounds per game. He will probably do whatever he wants against UK. The Cats have no one to match up with him. His brother KJ Lawson, on the other hand, isn’t quite as good. He might play 10-15 minutes the entire game, though he did come up big in their win over Tennessee with eight points, six boards and two steals.
The other player UK really has to worry about is Lagerald Vick. Vick is averaging 15 ppg and shooting 45.7 percent from three. Kentucky has to have someone in his face at all times, as he will jack it up from anywhere. He’s also a slasher that attacks the basket, so the Cats better be prepared for the senior guard.
Kansas has several enigmatic role players, but don’t sleep KU’s freshmen duo. Devon Dotson has been excellent this season. He’s averaging 10.9 ppg and he distributes the ball very well. He also knocks down the three ball at a high clip (41.7 percent).
The other freshman is Quentin Grimes. Grimes is a matchup problem, but he’s struggled a bit this season. He’s a very talented player, but his shot just hasn’t been falling and he’s lost his confidence. Kentucky needs to keep it that way.
The Jayhawks play very similar to Kentucky in that they don’t shoot a lot of threes, they draw a lot of fouls, and they attack the glass. They’ll jump in the passing lanes and force a lot of turnovers, but they don’t defend the rim that well. Kentucky should be able to score efficiently, they just need to be ready to defend the paint.
The Cats win a close one at Rupp.
Prediction: Kentucky 81, Kansas 76
Kentucky has picked the perfect time to catch fire. The Wildcats have won five in a row and are back inside the top 10. This sets up a top-10 matchup with No. 9 Kansas. The Jayhawks have been ranked as the top team in the country multiple weeks this season, but of late, have struggled.
Last weekend, they lost to a 9-10 West Virginia team having a down season. The road wasn’t kind, as Morgantown’s hostile environment seemed to get in the Jayhawks head during the loss.
Both teams come into Saturday with plenty to play for.
The Cats can make a statement that they can beat any team in the country, while the Jayhawks can prove they have the ability to win on the road in hostile environments.
Who proves their point?
I believe the Wildcats. They are playing well on both ends of the floor. The turnover woes from Tuesday were worrisome, but this team should be able to quickly correct that.
In addition, every team needs a player they can rely on to hit the dagger. Kentucky has that in Tyler Herro, who has time and time again come up clutch in Kentucky’s highest pressure moments of the season. I see Herro leading the way in what will be a big win for the Cats at home.
Prediction: Kentucky 85, Kansas 77
Before the season began, most everyone knew that this mid-season matchup against Kansas would be the ultimate measuring stick for the Wildcats. After two consecutive impressive wins, Kentucky will now have the opportunity to put college basketball on notice.
Let’s not forget that UK is a measly three points away from being 17-1 with the lone loss coming in the first game of the season. So as up and down as things have seemed, in reality, Kentucky has more than proven their worth through the first 18 games.
The Jayhawks will present challenges with their talent level and impact players that were added to the roster. Quentin Grimes and Dedric Lawson are terrific players who Kentucky will have to contain. Lawson went off in Kansas’ most recent game vs. Iowa State, where he scored 29 points.
Grimes can do it all offensively. He scored 21 points with six made threes in Kansas’ win over Michigan State, who is currently 17-2 and ranked No. 6 nationally.
Ultimately, I think that home court advantage will push the Cats across the finish line in a close one.
Prediction: Kentucky 83, Kansas, 79
The last time I wrote in this space in one of these roundtables, I doubted Kentucky’s ability to beat North Carolina. This time, it’s another blue blood: Kansas.
Unlike last time, the Wildcats have done much to atone for my lack of confidence since the UNC game. Not only did they win that game despite my doubts, but they have won six of their succeeding seven games, three against AP top 25 programs, including Louisville (who just ascended into the rankings) at the YUM! Center, at Auburn, and Mississippi State in Lexington. The sole hiccup was a last-second loss to Alabama on the road.
Without Udoka Azubuike or Silvio De Souza, Kansas is facing a very tough situation in Rupp Arena. Kansas has virtually no advantages to speak of over Kentucky statistically, especially since conference play began. They are turning the ball over more, defending far worse, missing free throws and shooting a pedestrian percentage from three. Their lack of size and strength inside is likely to make offensive rebounding a nightmare.
I’ll take Kentucky in this one (although that’s probably the kiss of death).
Prediction: Kentucky 83, Kansas 75
Kentucky squares off with another ranked opponent and blue blood when No. 9 Kansas comes to Lexington for this year’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge. This will be the Wildcats’ third straight ranked opponent, having already gotten big wins in Auburn and on Tuesday against Mississippi State.
The Jayhawks are looking to extend their Big 12 conference title streak to 15, but they need a win like this against a high profile team to erase the lull of their one-point loss to West Virginia last weekend.
Kentucky has improved tremendously in the last few weeks. After an opening conference loss to Alabama, the Cats are on a five game win streak against quality SEC opponents. Everyone seems to be trending up at the right time, and a win against Kansas would propel them even higher than No. 8 in the polls.
Kansas may have lost to the Mountaineers, but they are a talented squad that is as well coached as any team in the country with Bill Self. Even with Udoka Azubuike out for the season with a wrist injury and Silvio De Sousa having not played at all year due to suspension, Dedric Lawson, their transfer from Memphis, has been a force in the paint with averages of 19.5 points and 10.9 rebounds on 52.9% shooting.
Their guard spot is deep as well, with LaGerald Vick, Quentin Grimes, Marcus Garrett and Devon Dotson are a dynamic group that Hagans, Herro, Quickley and Johnson will have to contain. Garrett is quietly averaging 17 points and four steals per game over his last three games.
Both teams would love a win like this to add to their resume, but only one group is leaving Rupp with a win. In my opinion, the Cats are the ones who will get it done.
Everyone is improving in their own way and they will understand the importance of this game. Kansas is more than a quality program, but the Jayhawks are 1-3 on the road this year, while Kentucky is 11-0 at home. I think the Cats get it done down the stretch and likely jump another spot or so in the AP Poll following a 2-0 week against ranked teams.
Prediction: Kentucky 81, Kansas 72
The Cats are coming off two games against top-25 opponents, and the schedule is not getting any easier, as top 10 Kansas is coming to Rupp for a matchup this Saturday.
When the year started, I was very worried about this game because of Udoka Azubuike. The 7-0 center is one of the best bigs in the country, and since Kentucky struggles against length, it was going to be hard to matchup with him.
However, earlier in the year Azubuike went down with an injury, which I hate to see, but it makes the matchup a lot better for the Cats. While I do think it will be a battle for 40 minutes, I think Kentucky will come out strong and get the win for their third straight over a ranked team in seven days.
Prediction: Kentucky 78, Kansas 74
This is been a marquee matchup since it was announced on Kentucky schedule. Kansas began the year as the No. 1 team in the country, and at times has looked the part. But due to injuries and some players not meeting expectations, they have had a rough couple of weeks in Big 12 play.
Kentucky, on the other hand, is just now starting to show glimpses of the team they were predicted to be before the season began. The perimeter defense has really picked up, and the bench guys are starting to fill the roles that this team needs them to play.
Due to the Jayhawks’ recent struggles, Kentucky’s steady improvement, and the fact that the roof is going to be blowing off of Rupp Arena, I think the Wildcats win a close one at home.
Prediction: Kentucky 79, Kansas 75