7:00 Pm EST, ESPN – Line: Kansas -5, Over/Under: 146.5
As the college hoops world takes a brief detour from the conference schedule, we’re all in for a real treat as the two most winningest programs in the country get together at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, as the fourth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks host the twentieth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats. Between them, these hallowed universities have accounted for a total of 4,300 victories, 104 Conference Championships, thirty-one appearances to the Final Fur, and a staggering thirteen National Championships. Historically, they have met a total of twenty-eight times, with the Wildcats taking each of the past three meetings; hell, these teams even clashed for the 2012 National Championship four years ago, which saw a dominant Kentucky squad led by a slew of First Round Picks win John Calipari his first National Title. However, strictly speaking, if you’ve watched one of the clubs over the past two weeks, you would no doubt be left with a very different impression. After starting the season 14-1, highlighted by a No. One Ranking in the Polls, things have definitely hit a snag in Lawrence, as Kansas (16-4, 5-3, 4th in Big XII) has dropped three out of their five games. More alarming is the fact that all three of those defeats have been by double-digits, including their latest failure, an 85-72 loss at Iowa State on Monday Night. Despite owning a 43-36 lead at the hallway mark, Bill Self’s charges crumbled over the final twenty minutes of action, as they were outscored by twenty points in the second half. Both teams shot well (over 50.0%), but the visiting side was rather sloppy in the second half, committing the majority of their sixteen turnovers during that period. Kansas also struggled mightily to slow down the Cyclones, who netted 51.6% of their attempts from the field, including 9-of-21 from beyond the arc (42.9%) compared to a dreadful 5-of-17 (29.4%) for the ‘Hawks, equating to a twelve-point disadvantage. Their defensive pressure left a lot to be desired, as the hosts assisted on nineteen of their thirty-two field goals, with Self’s kids forcing a scant seven turnovers. Senior big man Perry Ellis led the way with twenty-three points on 10-of-17 shooting (58.8%), along with five rebounds and an assist, while Wayne Seldon and Frank Mason accounted for twenty-seven points, though the latter committed six turnovers. In order for Kansas to get back on track, they’re going to need to show more intensity defensively; in Big XII play, they’ve allowed an uncharacteristic 76.8 points per game (8th Overall), with their opponents shooting a scorching 40.1% from downtown (8th Overall), while accumulating just 10.5 turnovers, next to last in the conference. It would help if they got something out of hyped Freshman Cheick Diallo, whose eligibility was the subject of a prolonged NCAA investigation over the summer; the lanky 6’-9″ big man has struggled to fit in, averaging 4.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks in just 9.4 minutes of play.
Meanwhile, after a disappointing stretch in which they lost four out ten contests, Kentucky (16-4, 6-2, 2nd in SEC) has seemed to round into shape, as Calipari’s perennially inexperienced roster is at the point where they are beginning to gel. Simply put, the Wildcats have dominated this part of their conference schedule, obliterating their last three opponents by an average of 22.3 points per outing. A poor Missouri team was the latest victim, as the Tigers were apparently ran out of Rupp Arena immediately after their arrival. The hosts pounced on the beleaguered visitors, outscoring them by a staggering twenty-seven points in the first half alone, allowing Calipari to deploy the more underutilized members of his team over the final twenty minutes. A total of five Wildcats scored in double-figures, led by Tyler Ulis, who poured in a team-high twenty points on a superb 9-of-14 shooting from the field (64.3%), along with a pair of rebounds, and eight assists. Derek Willis was active on both ends with eighteen points and a team-best twelve rebounds, while the latest blue-chip recruit, Skal Labissiere finally started to show out with a dozen points on 6-of-8 shooting (75.0%) and whopping five blocks. Kentucky’s suffocating defense was in top form, relegating Mizzou to a terrible 31.6% shooting from the field, including only 32.6% from within the three-point arc, and not much better from beyond it (4-of-14, 28.6%). In essence, it was a virtual No-Fly Zone in the Paint on Wednesday Night, as the ‘Cats owned the glass (plus-19) and swatted a dozen shots, while scoring all but nine of their field goals in that area. With that said, it’s not just the defense that has stepped up of late (59.0 points allowed over their last three games) , but the offense as well; Calipari’s charges have reached the 50.0% threshold in five out of their last eight contests, with the aforementioned Ulis dropping twenty points in seven of the past nine. He and Freshman Guard Jamal Murray are evolving into the kind of backcourt that we’re used to seeing in Lexington, with the former averaging 15.5 points and a team-high 6.5 assists, while the latter has paced the tea in scoring (17.5 points) and three-point field goals (53) by a rather wide margin. In contrast to their opponent tonight, this backcourt has been adept at getting after the opposition, with both players along with fellow Guard Isaiah Briscoe each averaging at least one steal and a minimum of three rebounds per tilt. They’re a huge reason why Kentucky ranks atop the SEC in a number of defensive categories, including opponents’ field goal percentage (39.9%), two-point field goal percentage (42.5%), and assists (9.1). The only knock on these guys, is that at times they can prove to be too aggressive, as only three teams in conference play have seen their opponents shoot more free-throws than the Wildcats (25.5 per game). ironically, they don’t get to the charity stripe much themselves, which is certainly odd for a group as athletically gifted as these kids are; Calipari’s charges have shot the third-fewest freebies in the SEC (20.1), making just 67.1% of them (9th Overall).