Last season, the Kentucky Wildcats entered Allen Fieldhouse playing their best basketball of the season and walked out with an 18-point victory against the Kansas Jayhawks.
This Saturday, the Cats will host Kansas, and again, are playing their best basketball of the season.
Comparing both teams, the Wildcats most certainly have the momentum, currently riding a four-game winning streak. In their last win, coming against Vanderbilt on Tuesday, they may have played their most complete game of the year.
Whereas, the Jayhawks have lost three straight, tied for the longest losing streak under Bill Self. However, all three losses came against ranked opponents that were also KenPom top 25 teams, and two were on the road.
With a revitalized Big Blue Nation, Rupp Arena is set to be rocking, hosting its first-ranked opponent this season. For the Wildcats, this game is a chance to prove that they have really turned the corner.
Let’s take a closer look at the game.
Get off to a Good Start
Even during their turnaround, one of the Wildcats’ biggest weaknesses has been their poor starts. This is no fault of poor execution, as the Wildcats often miss open looks.
Fortunately, that has not been a strong suit of Kansas either. In many of their conference games, even their wins, the Jayhawks have gotten down double-digits early. It was inevitable that it would catch up to them, and it has played a part in their losing streak.
Over their last two games (Texas A&M and Vanderbilt), Kentucky has improved slightly in their starts, but they need to be more consistent. With that said, Kansas will not be short of motivation on Saturday, so a good start should be anticipated, and Kentucky must be ready to match them.
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Win the Rebounding Battle
One of Kansas’ biggest weaknesses has been their rebounding, as in three of their four losses, the Jayhawks have been outrebounded. With no big man, they have had to rely on team rebounding to make up for being undersized.
This plays in Kentucky’s favor, as they are one of the best rebounding teams in the country. With their new lineup, the team’s rebounding - especially Jacob Toppin - has been even better, averaging 38.3 rpg and outrebounding their opponent by more than 13 per contest over their four-game winning streak.
The area where Kentucky really needs to capitalize is on the offensive glass. On average, Kansas is giving up 9.1 rpg on a 73.2 defensive rebounding percentage. Even if it is an off-shooting night, Kentucky should be able to get extra scoring opportunities. It could be another big game for Oscar Tshiebwe.
Limit Jalen Wilson and Gradey Dick
Kansas may not have a true point guard or true center, but they have two of the best wings in college basketball in Gradey Dick and Jalen Wilson. The two are the Jayhawks’ leading scorers and combine for 36.3 points per game.
What makes them so dangerous is their perimeter shooting, as the duo combines for five of Kansas’s eight made threes per game. However, Wilson is also an aggressive straight-line driver who could give Kentucky fits.
Against Vanderbilt, Kentucky forced their two best perimeter shooters into 1-5 from three, and that must carry over to the Kansas game. Toppin has defended well against some talented forwards, so expect him to guard Wilson - potentially Chris Livingston as well to provide some physicality - but CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves must also continue to maintain their level of defense against Gradey Dick.
Kentucky Basketball (14-6) vs. Kansas Jayhawks (16-4)
Time/Date: 8:00 pm ET on Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Location: Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY
TV Channel: ESPN
Online Stream: WatchESPN, ESPN+, SEC Network+ or ESPN app
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the UK radio network call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
Replay: WatchESPN and SEC Network (check local listings).
Odds: Kansas initially opened at -1.5, but DraftKings Sportsbook now has it at Kentucky -2. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Kentucky a fair chance to win at 65.4 percent, but Bart Torvik has it at 43%, while KenPom is at 52%.
Predictions: Bart Torvik picks the Wildcats to lose in a nail-biter, 71-69, while TeamRankings has it at 72-70 for the home team. KenPom has it as a 71-70 victory, Kentucky!