Two of the biggest, most recognizable programs in College Basketball will meet for a monster showdown Saturday in Lexington, Kentucky, as the Kansas Jayhawks travel down south to take on the Kentucky Wildcats. Of course, this would have been a bit more intriguing if both teams hadn’t lost on Tuesday night. (Kansas went down at West Virginia, while Kentucky lost on the road to Tennessee.)
But, it’s still the marquee game of the weekend. So let’s dive into this matchup and see how things are going to pan out—position by position. Let’s get started.
Kansas: Frank Mason, Devonte Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk.
Kentucky: De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe.
Technically, Josh Jackson and Malik Monk would fall into this category, but we’ll have more on that individual matchup in a bit. Mason and Graham are two of the best defenders, but they’ll have their hands full with the speedy, physical guards (Briscoe pulled down 13 rebounds in the Tennessee game) that Kentucky puts out there.
Kansas has two options on defense: play zone and have Mason/Graham go pester Fox the moment he crosses half court, or, they could play man and hide Mykhailiuk on one of the Wildcat big men (most likely Wenyen Gabriel), then have a shadow on Fox and Briscoe at all times. On the flip side, UK may lean towards the zone look, seeing as Kansas puts out essentially a four-guard lineup, with Josh Jackson technically at the “four” spot in the lineup. If they do go man, expect Fox to flank Mason. And, Briscoe to be on Graham.
If Kentucky does decide to go man, that would likely leave Gabriel on Mykhailiuk. That would be a plus matchup for the Jayhawks.
Kansas: Landen Lucas.
Kentucky: Wenyen Gabriel and Edrice ‘Bam’ Adebayo.
This is where Kansas is going to run into some trouble.
No offense to Lucas, but he is a far cry from Perry Ellis on the offensive end. Lucas will have his hands full with Adebayo, who has quietly become a powerful offensive threat for Kentucky in the post. Even when Adebayo leaves for a breather, John Calipari has backups that are capable of overpowering Lucas since he is the only true big that Bill Self starts, as they are sorely missing 7’0″ freshman Udoka Azubuike.
If Kansas controls the guard matchups (which will be tough in its own right) then Adebayo will become the key to a Kentucky victory.
Josh Jackson (Kansas) versus Malik Monk (Kentucky)
These two are the best NBA prospects to come from this game. Both will most likely go top 10, if not top-five, in this year’s draft. Now if both teams come out in zone, there won’t be a ton of one-on-one between the two of these stars. But if it’s man? Then buckle up, because this should be a good one.
Jackson and Monk rarely come off the floor as both coaches rely heavily on them. Monk, as of now, is quicker and has a better shot off the dribble. Overall, he’s the better scorer as well, averaging 21.9 points per game. That said, Jackson’s length could cause Monk a lot of problems, with the former standing about five inches taller. Jackson isn’t Kansas’ best scorer (Frank Mason leads the team at 19.9 PPG) but he may rise to the occasion in this big spot. He may have to, as this will be Kansas’ toughest test since they faced Duke back in November. Then, Jackson played only 18 minutes due to foul trouble. But he would rise when he was on the floor, finishing with 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
Look for Bill Self to bank on him being a big-game player and go right to Jackson early on against Monk. If Kansas can get Monk into foul trouble early, which has happened before, Calipari may be forced to send him to the bench—leaving a big hole in the Kentucky offense.
This one is fairly lopsided. In past years, it would be Kansas with the deep bench. Not so much this year. Carlton Bragg and Lagerald Vick were the only reserves who would see over 10 minutes, but Bragg was just suspended indefinitely for a “violation of team rules.” Coach Self made it clear in a statement that “This violation is not connected to the alleged incident in McCarthy Hall on Dec. 17th.” The incident Self speaks of is that of a reported rape on KU campus, which university police are still investigating.
In terms of the game, this might mean Mitch Lightfoot seeing more time for the Jayhawks Kentucky is a different story, however. They have some serious firepower off the bench with Derek Willis, Isaac Humphries, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder. Though, Mulder may be out for at least another week due to illness.
All four are veteran players, and some have seen starting minutes in the past. Humphries in particular will be difficult for Kansas to handle because of their previously noted lack of big men. Kentucky can go 9-10 players deep, while Kansas can barely go seven.
All in all, this should be a good one. This is the highlight of the SEC/BIG 12 challenge and the atmosphere should be tournament-like, so expect some fireworks. You can catch this game on Saturday at 6:15 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Weekend Watch (Sunday)
No. 12 Virginia at No. 1 Villanova—1:00 p.m. ET, FOX
I’m very much looking forward to this one. Two of the most well-coached teams in the country and both loaded with talent. It was a great game last year and I expect the same this time.
Washington at No. 7 Arizona—3:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Arizona is the hottest team in the country right now, and with the return of Allonzo Trier, they could be a trendy pick come March. This is also probably the last time you’ll be able to see future lottery pick Markelle Fultz on the national stage barring a miraculous PAC 12 tournament run by Washington, seeing as they have struggled mightily this year with a 9-11 record.
If the Madness Began today…
If the Tournament started today, these would be the four No. 1 seeds:
South: Baylor Bears.
Midwest: Kansas Jayhawks.
East: Villanova Wildcats (No. 1 Overall Seed).
West: Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Nobody is safe. UCLA and Kentucky drop out after losses, while Kansas is on the ropes after a loss and a monster road game coming up this weekend. Sadly, one loss and Gonzaga is bumped off the line. Villanova is still the top seed overall, but that could all change with a loss against Virginia this weekend.