The early season match up that all Kentucky fans have been anxiously awaiting is finally here. Ready or not, here come the Jayhawks. The number 4 team in the AP Top 25 is waiting for the Cats at the United Center in Chicago for the State Farm Champions Classic. The Champions Classic, originated in 2011, has consistently produced the best match ups of the early season in every year it has existed. This year, it pits the top two teams in the country against each other, in Duke and Michigan State.
Kentucky has a 4-2 record in the Champions Classic over the years, including winning the last three games by a margin of 21.3 points. In the all-time match up versus Kansas, Kentucky leads 22-8, despite losing to the Jayhawks in both of the last two SEC/Big 12 Challenges. These young Wildcats will have their hands full with a veteran-led Kansas team, especially after struggling with Vermont on Sunday.
Kansas started two seniors, a junior, a sophomore, and a freshman in their season-opening win over the Tennessee State Tigers. Meanwhile, Kentucky has started five freshmen in both of their first two games on the season. Let’s take a look at the projected starting lineup for the Jayhawks in tonight’s game.
#4 Devonte’ Graham, Senior Guard, 6’2″
Devonte’ Graham is the first of two seniors in the starting lineup for Bill Self this season. Graham played the two guard last season, alongside Frank Mason. Graham was named to the second team All-Big 12 in 2017, as well as being the Big 12 Championship Most Outstanding Player in 2016.
While Graham may have been overshadowed by the great Frank Mason last year, he had a really solid junior year, averaging 13.4 points, 4.1 assists, and 3.1 rebounds. He’s a career 41.2% three point shooter and 75.6% free throw shooter. In Kansas’ win over Tennessee State, he nearly messed around for a triple-double, finishing with 10 points, 12 assists, and 7 rebounds.
The pivotal position in a big game is the point guard position, and the match up of Graham versus Quade Green will be huge for Kentucky. Green hasn’t been the best defender through the first couple games and exhibitions this season, and Graham will be handling the ball a ton for Bill Self. This could be struggle for Green in the first primetime game of his career. Graham is a very solid defender, so Green will need to be on top of taking care of the ball.
#2 Lagerald Vick, Junior Guard, 6’5″
Lagerald Vick wasn’t a starter last season for the Jayhawks, but played more than 25 minutes per contest off the bench. The junior is reported to have taken a huge step in his game in the offseason, making him a major player in the game plan for Bill Self. Last season, he had 2 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals in 18 minutes against UK.
Vick did start six games last season, but spent most of the year as the sixth or seventh man where he averaged 7.4 points and 3.5 rebounds, while shooting 37% from deep and 82.6% from the charity stripe. He had a huge first game of this season, finishing as the high scorer for the game with 23 points, to go along with 5 rebounds and 3 assists.
Kansas starts two players at 6’5″ at the two and three positions, meaning both Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo will be the defenders for those two players. Personally, I think Knox takes Vick to start the game, as he’s more of a small forward than fellow starter Marcus Garrett is as a freshman. The Cats need Knox to have a loud game to keep up with the Jayhawks tonight.
#35 Udoka Azubuike, Sophomore Center, 7’0″
Udoka Azubuike was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school before last season. Ranked as a top 25 player in the Class of 2016, Azubuike was primed for a solid season his first year at Kansas, starting six of his first 11 games. Unfortunately, his season was cut short as a wrist injury forced him to sit out the rest of the season.
Back for his sophomore year, Azubuike assumes the open center position that was left by graduating senior Landen Lucas. The 7-footer is a load to handle in the post, but is still trying to get his bearings in the college game due to being forced to miss almost a year of games. He finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks in the first game of this season.
The Nigeria-native is a true center, measuring at 7-foot and 280 pounds. Kentucky bigs Nick Richards and Sacha Killeya-Jones are going to need to both be at their absolute best to not get out-muscled on both ends of the floor due to Azubuike’s pure size and skill. Handling a player of this size and talent could cause foul-trouble for inexperienced centers like Richards.
#10 Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Senior Forward, 6’8″
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk first started his career at Kansas at 17 years old and the youngest player in Big 12 history. Now, Mykhailiuk is a returning starter and senior for Bill Self. Mykhailiuk tested the NBA Draft waters after last season, only to be a very key returner for this season.
Mykhailiuk’s junior season at Kansas as his breakout year, playing over 27 minutes per game and averaging 9.8 points and 3 rebounds on the season. He shot just shy of 40% from 3-points range and also shot 70.2% from the free-throw line. He put up a 15 point-5 board performance in Kansas’ first win of the season.
The Ukranian is one of those “tweener” type players, in that he is the size of a forward, measuring at 6’8″, but the game of a guard. He’s the second-largest starter for Bill Self, so that leaves him to be matched up with PJ Washington for Kentucky. Washington may have a hard trying to keep up with Mykhailiuk on the perimeter and running him off the three point line; however, Washington should be able to play some bully-ball in the post on the offensive end.
#0 Marcus Garrett, Freshman Guard, 6’5″
Marcus Garrett earned the starting nod from Coach Bill Self in the first game of the year, a final starting slot that many believed would be filled by Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman. Garrett was a top-60 player in the Class of 2017; however, I’m not sure many expected him to come in immediately and fill the starting guard position that Frank Mason left.
The freshman out of Dallas, Texas had a double-double in his first career game at Kansas, finishing with 10 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. Garrett didn’t start in the exhibition games prior to the regular season, but must have shown something off the bench and in practice to earn a starting spot.
As the other guard in the lineup alongside Devonte’ Graham, Garrett will most likely draw the eyes of Hamidou Diallo. Diallo’s potential was put on display in Sunday’s win over Vermont, but he did have some head-scratchers that can be frustrating to watch. Diallo’s first chance at a big game for Kentucky will show what he does under the bright lights, on the big stage at this point in his career.
There are certainly a lot of question marks for this Kentucky team heading into tonight’s game against the Jayhawks. The two shaky performances against Utah Valley and Vermont didn’t exactly put Coach Cal or the fans at ease. Tonight’s game in the Champions Classic reminds me a lot of UK’s game against Michigan State in the 2013 Champions Classic. The Cats were loaded with freshmen, but Michigan State was ranked just behind them at #2 in the country. The veteran lineup for the Spartans wreaked havoc on the young Wildcats. Kentucky will need to avoid being overwhelmed early to stick with Kansas tonight.
Go Cats. Beat Jayhawks.