Tonight, Kentucky will take on Kansas in the second game of the Champions Classic (9:30 p.m., ESPN). What’s changed with the Jayhawks since Kentucky played them in Rupp Arena in January? A whole, whole lot. Here are the five things you need to know prior to tonight’s showdown.
1. Josh Jackson and Frank Mason III are gone
Kansas’ top two scorers last season were Frank Mason III (20.9 ppg) and Josh Jackson (16.3 ppg), who went 34th and 4th in June’s NBA Draft, respectively. Laden Lucas and Tyler Self also graduated, and Carlton Bragg, Dwight Coleby, and Jack Whitman all transferred. So, while Kentucky’s brand new roster will steal the headlines tonight, it’s worth mentioning the Jayhawks have had a lot of turnover too.
2. Devonte’ Graham is their best player
The senior guard was Kansas’ third leading scorer last season, but this year, he is, as John Calipari put it, “the one that stirs their coffee.” Coming into this year, Graham is shooting 42% from three and is the preseason pick for Big 12 Player of the Year. Containing him will be a very tall task for Quade Green and Shai Alexander. If there’s one area that Kentucky’s youth could burn them tonight, it’s the backcourt.
3. They’ve got Malik Newman…but he didn’t start on Friday
Remember Malik Newman? Once high atop John Calipari’s wish list, Newman transferred to Kansas after a disappointing freshman season at Mississippi State. After sitting out last season, Newman was expected to share the backcourt with Graham…but lost his starting job to freshman Marcus Garrett, who put up 10 points and 10 rebounds vs. Tennessee State. Newman came off the bench to score 12 points, but man, it’s hard not to imagine how different his story could be had he chosen Kentucky in 2015.
4. Three more “Oh yeah” guys
Kentucky obviously recruited Newman hard, but they also courted the Jayhawks’ sophomore big man Udoka Azubuike, junior guard Legerald Vick, and, to a lesser extent, five-star freshman Billy Preston. Vick led all scorers with 23 points in Kansas’ season-opener vs. Tennessee State, while Preston was suspended for missing curfew and skipping class the next day (he’ll play tonight). Meanwhile, Calipari admitted yesterday he wanted Azubuike, who missed last year’s game vs. the Cats due to injury.
“The big kid (Udoka Azubuike) is good. We recruited the big kid. They beat us on him. Next to the basket, it’s a tough deal.”
Because of Azubuike’s size, Calipari said he may use Tai Wynyard more than usual tonight.
“This may be a Tai game,” Cal said. “Let him go in there and bang the crap out of them.”
5. Kentucky’s lost the last two in the series
The last time Kentucky beat Kansas? The unforgettable 72-40 beatdown in the 2014 Champions Classic in Indianapolis. Since then, the Cats have lost to the Jayhawks twice, 90-84 in an overtime thriller at The Phog in January 2016 and 73-79 last season at Rupp.
This year, the Jayhawks may have the edge in experience because of Graham, but I’ve seen Kentucky’s freshmen rise to the occasion in the Champions Classic too many times to count them out.