The matchup of the year is here for the Kentucky Wildcats.
While further SEC matchups await, the Wildcats are hungry to avenge last season’s loss to the Kansas Jayhawks and will have their chance Saturday evening at Rupp Arena. With College GameDay in attendance, expect Rupp Arena to return to vintage form of deafening crowd noise and intimidation.
Winners of five straight, John Calipari’s team enters the game as significant favorites. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index is giving Kentucky a 68.8% chance of victory over Bill Self’s Jayhawks. Kansas, who has struggled over the last week of action, will be without star center Udoka Azubuike. The All-Big 12 center underwent surgery two weeks ago, sidelining him for the remainder of the season.
The gaping hole in Kansas’s defense should and most certainly will be exploited by none other than Kentucky’s four-man rotation in the front court. Calipari’s starting duo of PJ Washington and Reid Travis will have first dibs, followed by reserves EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards.
Kentucky’s impact on the inside will likely draw multiple double-teams, emphasizing efficient passes to the outside for quality looks from three. Over 32% of Kentucky’s shots come from long-range two-pointers, which is something Kansas will certainly live with. Moving the basketball for open shots will be a necessity for the Wildcats.
On defense, Kentucky has tightened their grip during their winning streak and can’t let up on Saturday. Junior forward Dedric Lawson is coming off a 29-point performance against Iowa State, which will draw a group effort on defense. Shutting down Lawson and keeping an eye on senior guard Lagerald Vick should be Kentucky’s top-two priorities.
Other Jayhawks to watch for include sophomore guard Marcus Garrett, who is 17 points and four steals per game over the last three contests.
Sophomore guard Ochai Agbaji is another under-the-radar name to watch for, as the 6-5, 210-pounder has actually been playing power forward a lot recently, averaging 7.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.0 steals in a four-game stretch against Baylor, Texas, TCU and Iowa State.
The x-factor for Kansas will likely be freshman guard Quentin Grimes, one of the top recruits in the 2018 class who Kentucky heavily pursued. His best outing was a 21-point outburst in a win over a top-10 Michigan State team. However, Grimes has struggled with consistency, averaging just 5.2 points over his last five games.
In terms of KenPom, Kentucky is ranked No. 9 overall coming into this matchup, highlighted by their No. 11 defensive efficiency rating. They rank No. 20 in offensive efficiency.
Kansas is ranked No. 12 on the strength of their 10 defense, while their offense is at No. 27. This game certainly has the makings of a defensive struggle that could see both teams struggle to get any separation from the other.
- Wildcats are 15-3 (1-2 ATS) this season
- Kentucky o/u is 6-4 the last 10 games
- Kentucky is 6-3 ATS in its last 9 games
- Kentucky is 5-0 SU in its last 5 games
- Kentucky is 4-2 ATS in its last 6 games when playing Kansas
- Jayhawks are 16-3 (3-0 ATS) this season
- Kansas o/u is 4-6 the last 10 games
- Kansas is 2-5 ATS in its last 7 games
- Kansas is 16-3 SU in its last 19 games
- The total has gone OVER in 16 of Kansas’s last 23 games
- Kyle Boone of CBS Sports is picking Kentucky to win in a 84-78 affair.
- Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader is predicting a score of 83-76, favoring the Wildcats.
- Sports Illustrated’s Michael Beller sees the Wildcats winning in a nail biter, 75-72.
- Rock Chalk Talk is also going against the Jayhawks, predicting Kentucky in a 67-62 decision.
- Top Bet concludes the sweep of experts picking Kentucky with a 81-76 prediction.
When Kentucky and Kansas meet head-to-head, the matchup usually calls for a close decision. Despite recent woes from the Jayhawks, Saturday shouldn’t be much different.
However, the outcome should be opposite of the recent past. Between Reid Travis and PJ Washington, Kentucky has sustained a heavy 1-2 punch of muscle on the inside.
On the outside, their guard and wing play has been phenomenal to date. Kansas is talented, but the absence of Azubuike will plague their defense of the painted area.
The two Hall of Fame coaches will duel once again on Rupp Arena’s hardwood, this time with Calipari’s team coming out on top.
Final Score: Kentucky 73, Kansas 70