Both Kentucky and Kansas lost last night, making Saturday’s showdown in Rupp even more important, specifically when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding. The best way for Kentucky to stay in the conversation for a one-seed is to beat Kansas, which could use a resume boost itself after a 16-point drubbing at West Virginia. Beat Kansas and Kentucky’s two-point loss at Tennessee is just a blip, an inevitable stumble on the road in the SEC; lose to Kansas and you can’t afford another off night, which is asking a whole lot from a team that, as we saw last night, hasn’t grown up yet.
The game’s not until Saturday, but I’m already fixated on it, if only because I’m desperate to turn the page from last night. After an early look at both squads, here are the five things Kentucky must do to beat Kansas and potentially get a one-seed.
1. Feed Bam to capitalize on Kansas’ vulnerability in the paint
As Kyle Tucker pointed out this morning, Bam Adebayo is shooting 82% over the last five games, but is only averaging five shots. WTF. Bam had 21 points last night off 7-8, but he could have had 30+ had the guards simply fed him the ball more often. This has been a talking point for weeks, but we’re getting to the point that if someone doesn’t get the ball to Bam on a possession, they need to sit. Calipari pretty much did that for most of the second half and Bam got 15 of his 21 points as a result. This is probably the most important key to the game because the paint is where Kansas is the most vulnerable. Last night, West Virginia outscored Kansas 34-20 in the paint and outrebounded them 39-32. The Jayhawks are giving up 34 points a game in the paint, whereas Kentucky’s scoring 44. Feed Bam, beat Kansas.
2. Find some kind of answer for Josh Jackson
Unfortunately, while Bam can punish Kansas inside due to matchup problems, Josh Jackson can do just as much harm to Kentucky on the wing. While Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis have improved at the four spot (although they were only 2-11 last night), relying on them for defense is shaky at best, and when it comes to Jackson, one of the most explosive scorers in the country, it’s downright terrifying. It will be interesting to see what Kentucky does with Jackson; do you rotate players on him, such as Briscoe, or just let him shoot from the outside and hope he misses more than he makes? I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision.
3. Some kind of defense — any kind of defense! — from Fox and Monk
Remember at the beginning of the season when everyone thought De’Aaron Fox’s biggest impact would be on defense? Well, it’s been three months and we’re still waiting. Known for his defensive prowess in high school, Fox has made his mark in transition so far at Kentucky, blowing by teams on his way to the basket for easy buckets. Unfortunately, he’s not using that same speed to keep up on defense, which is truly perplexing; the same goes for Monk, who seems to only cares about defense because it means he gets the ball back to score again. These two are fast, phenomenal athletes, but on Saturday, they’ll face a backcourt duo that’s possibly even better than they are in Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham. For Kentucky to win, they must get some kind of production from Fox and Monk on the defensive end.
4. Recapture transition mojo
Kentucky trails only West Virginia among major conferences when it comes to points per game off turnovers (21.4), but in recent games, that’s dipped over the last four games to a 16.5 average. Maybe it’s due to all of the fouls, but Kentucky hasn’t been the same high-flying, fun bunch of Cats the past few weeks; Tennessee did a particularly good job of limiting Kentucky in transition, leaving the team looking lost in the half court offense.
On the flip side, Kentucky’s also turning the ball over more often, an average of 15 times in the last four games, a noticeable uptick from their season average of 11.5. Against a team that is equally as dangerous in the backcourt, not only can Kentucky not afford mistakes, they must capitalize on every one Kansas makes. We know they can do it. So let’s do it.
5. Turn Up, Rupp
This one’s on you, fans. Last year, Kentucky lost to Kansas due in part to what some called the most impressive college basketball environment they’ve been a part of. With a one-seed potentially on the line, Rupp must be rocking. The pieces are there to make it happen; “College Gameday” will be in town, the early evening tip time gives fans plenty of time to pregame and get rowdy, several former Cats could be in the audience along with a five-star recruit, and there’s a ton on the line. UK’s even pulling out all the stops to “Turn Up, Rupp” by bringing in a rep from the Guinness Book of World Records to attempt to set a new record for the loudest indoor crowd cheer. Rupp generally doesn’t have a reputation for that, but on special nights, it tends to rise to the occasion; for Kentucky’s postseason path to be as smooth as possible, it will have to.