Kentucky vs. no. 9 Kansas in Rupp Arena (8 pm, ESPN) serves as the finale of a big day of college hoops. Three-game losing streak aside, the Jayhawks are a top-ten team and a victory over them would be another boost for a Kentucky team that’s starting to put the pieces together.
The odds have moved in Kentucky’s favor. After opening as a one-point underdog, the Cats are now a 2.5-point favorite. The computer models are torn on the matchup. KenPom has Kentucky by one 71-70, giving the Cats a 52% chance of winning, while BartTorvik did the opposite, picking the Jayhawks by the same score and setting Kentucky’s chances of winning at 43%.
What about the national media? Here’s what they’re saying about the Cats vs. the Jayhawks.
After starting the morning in Knoxville to preview No. 10 Texas at No. 4 Tennessee, the College Gameday crew is boarding its bus to come to Lexington for Kentucky vs. Kansas. Jay Bilas is calling the game, so he didn’t make a prediction, but LaPhonso Ellis and Seth Greenberg did, both going with the Cats over the Jayhawks.
Borzello: When Kansas was humming offensively for the first two months of the season, it was its smaller lineup causing fits for opponents, spreading the floor, making 3s, winning the turnover battle. That hasn’t happened during this losing streak. The Jayhawks are shooting 26% from 3 during that stretch, while turning it over 32 times in the past two games. Throw in Jalen Wilson not getting enough help offensively and a defense that has fallen off dramatically in the past couple of games, and Kansas needs to right the ship at both ends of the floor. Kentucky has also gone smaller during its winning streak, getting better spacing and allowing Oscar Tshiebwe more room to operate inside. Which group wins out on Saturday? I think Kansas can’t shoot this poorly forever and get back on the right track.
Predicted score: Kansas 72, Kentucky 70
Gasaway: Since Kentucky’s victory at Tennessee, the Wildcats have won three games they are “supposed” to win, which is an essential skill. UK’s defense has improved dramatically and Tshiebwe has 67 rebounds across the four wins. Kentucky could be back. Good thing for KU that the Wildcats don’t force many turnovers. I expect Gradey Dick to shake off a perimeter cold spell (5 of his last 21) in a game that goes down to the wire.
Predicted score: Kansas 74, Kentucky 71
Lunardi: Could this be the reverse of last season, when Kentucky waltzed into Allen Field House and blitzed the future national champions? Kansas is the better team, I think, and has to be smarter a bit heading to Rupp Arena. I doubt this will be a blowout in either direction, as both teams really need a win (albeit for different reasons). But I like the Jayhawks in a close one on the road.
Predicted score: Kansas 78, Kentucky 74
Medcalf: Bill Self’s three-game losing streak says a lot about the strength of the Big 12 — the Jayhawks lost to three top-30 KenPom teams — but it doesn’t change my view of Kansas as a contender. Now, Saturday might do that. But Self has always been strong in tight games. His team is 4-1 this season in games decided by three points or less, and was 6-2 last season in the same scenario, including the national title game. But this is a hot Kentucky team. The starting lineup of Chris Livingston, Cason Wallace, CJ Fredrick, Jacob Toppin and Tshiebwe has held opponents to just 85 points per 100 possessions and snatched 42% of its missed shots during this four-game run, per hooplens.com.
Predicted score: Kentucky 74, Kansas 72
Patrick Young: Kentucky
SEC Network analyst Patrick Young joined the Field of 68’s “After Dark” Show to preview the Big 12/SEC Challenge. After watching the Cats turn it around after the loss to South Carolina, he’s a believer.
“This Kentucky team, ever since they lost — which is probably going to be South Carolina’s only conference win, which I can’t believe — Kentucky has completely flipped the script,” Young said, detailing the changes in the lineup. “Kentucky against Vandy, that was the best basketball I’ve seen them play all year. Oscar did not need to go — he could — but he did not need to have one of those Oscar Tshiebwe, Oscar Tshiebwe games. The ball was moving, there was pace in the offense, great shot selection. Defense was not elite. I want to see that get a little bit better.”
ESPN Matchup Predictor
Spread at time of publication: Kentucky -3
One of the most fascinating elements of the Kentucky-Kansas matchup is how KU’s undersized approach in the front court will fare against UK’s interior monster Oscar Tshiebwe. While UK has grown more flexible and versatile defensively amid a role reduction for undersized point guard Sahvir Wheeler, the Wildcats haven’t played an offensive as dynamic as Kansas’ since getting torched by Alabama on Jan. 7. If the Jayhawks can use their undersized groupings to draw Tshiebwe away from the basket and force Kentucky to guard players like Jalen Wilson, Gradey Dick and Kevin McCullar 1-on-1 off the dribble, it could be a long night for UK.
Prediction: Kansas +1
These teams met last year in this event and produced a result that looks stunning in retrospect: Kentucky trounced Kansas 80-62 at Allen Fieldhouse in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score would suggest. The game vaulted Kentucky into being a potential favorite to win the national championship and served as a warning sign as to what the Jayhawks might look like against an elite team.
Less than three months later, Kentucky was dealing with the all-time embarrassment of losing to Saint Peter’s, while Kansas was on a national championship victory tour. It’s a good reminder not to read too much into individual results during the regular season!
This matchup is fascinating: Kentucky is finally finding its stride after a disastrous start to the season, winners of four straight since the disastrous loss to South Carolina that sent shockwaves through the college basketball landscape. On the other side, Kansas is hitting its first true adversity of the season, losers of three straight including getting trounced at home by TCU on Saturday. The Jayhawks don’t have a true interior presence to match up with Oscar Tshiebwe, but Kansas’s passing ability could cause problems for a Kentucky defense that has really struggled to defend in space.
Kansas at Kentucky (-2 1/2), Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN. My, how the mighty have fallen. It seems like two weeks ago that Kansas was cruising to its usual spoils (No. 1 ranking, Big 12 title, Final Four), but the Jayhawks have dropped three in a row to Kansas State, TCU and Baylor. Among many issues, junior point guard Dajuan Harris seems to have had an evil spell cast on him a la “Space Jam.” He has scored a total of five points in his last four games after averaging 8.6 points on 50 percent 3-point shooting in his previous 16. That has exacerbated the Jayhawks’ size issues in the frontcourt. Nor is KU getting much help from its bench. The team is ranked 345th in the country in bench minutes, per KenPom.
Meanwhile, Kentucky has reeled off four straight wins following that embarrassing home loss to South Carolina. John Calipari has settled into (or was forced by injury to settle into) a smarter, tighter rotation that has benefited from the return of 6-3 senior guard CJ Fredrick from his finger injury, the progress of freshman point guard Cason Wallace and the emergence of senior guard Antonio Reeves, a transfer from Illinois State who is scoring 16.8 points per game on 38.5 percent 3-point shooting over his last six games. There’s no doubt Kentucky has renewed confidence that should be further buoyed by playing this megagame in Rupp Arena, but this Kansas team is simply too good, and Bill Self is too good of a coach, to lose four games in a row.
The pick: 10 tokens on Kansas
Kansas is coming off a three-game losing streak, Kentucky a four-game winning streak. And with the Wildcats narrowly in the projected NCAA Tournament field and Kansas needing to get back on track, this becomes a pretty big game. It’s a fascinating matchup as well: Kansas has nobody to keep Oscar Tshiebwe from going nuts inside and on the glass, while Kentucky hasn’t played a team that can spread the Wildcats out defensively like Kansas can since Kentucky’s loss to Alabama. Remember: Kentucky clocked Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse last year, but Kansas went on to win the national title.
Prediction: Kentucky 71-68