In a stretch of three consecutive ranked opponents, the Kentucky Wildcats are set to take on their toughest challenger with the Kansas Jayhawks in town. ESPN College GameDay is here to see the two winningest programs in NCAA history participate in the top-10 blue-blood matchup.
Sitting at 15-3 on the year (11-0 at home), this is a massive opportunity for the Wildcats to secure yet another impressive victory to add to their resume of four wins over ranked opponents on the year.
But it won’t come easy. No. 9 Kansas is 16-3 on the year, including victories over ranked opponents in Tennessee and Michigan State. Their guard play is elite, they have a National Player of the Year candidate in Dedrick Lawson, and Bill Self is a Hall of Fame coach.
For Kentucky, they’re excited about the challenge of taking on an outstanding opponent on the big stage. They don’t care about the glitz and glamour that comes with GameDay coming to town, they just want to prove they’re worthy of the hype they received to start the season.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari says this is a game that needs to be played if they want to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. It looks good to come away with blowout victories against inferior opponents, but Calipari says Kansas is the type of team you’d see late in the tourney, so getting this kind of experience in the midst of conference play is vital.
“This is a team you’ll be playing if you’re lucky enough to get into the tournament and advance,” he said. “At some point you’ll play a team like this so let’s see how good we are. Right now, again, them being more of a veteran team, they’ll be a little bit advanced in what they’re running, their execution, probably sustaining effort where we have those break downs and let teams back in the game. We do it, and at some point they’ve got to learn it’s going to end your season if you play that way. It’ll be a good challenge for us.”
Wildcat forward Keldon Johnson said though he gets amped for big games like this, he just has to ride the waves that come with it and not stress about the little things. The team has to “weather the storm.”
“I learned that it’s going to be a lot of ups and downs throughout the game,” he said. “Nobody’s going to have a perfect game. You’re going to have a lot of ups and downs. The other team, of course, is going to make some runs; you’re going to make some runs. It’s all about weathering the storm when they make runs and just staying focused.”
Kentucky forward Reid Travis, who also played against Kansas while at Stanford in 2016 and 2017, said he specifically remembers the team’s physicality, speed, and elite guard play in his previous two meetings. After watching review of this current Jayhawk team, Travis said they look very similar to the squads he saw in the past.
“I would say the biggest thing I remember is the physicality, the speed of the game. They’ve always had good shooters, good guard and solid post players. They get the ball up quick, they look for their big. I think that’s exactly what they have this year, too. They can space the floor with their weave action, really penetrate but also have dominant bigs, so it’s going to be a good test for us.”
ESPN College GameDay analyst Jay Bilas said though this game is important for the young Wildcats and their development, there is something to learn from this matchup whether they win or lose. As we saw with the result of the Duke game to open the season versus the production we see from the Cats now, Bilas says this Kentucky team is going to be completely different in a month from now, likely for the better.
“I know Kentucky is going to be a different team in a month than they are now as long as everyone stays healthy,” he said. “So when we give an assessment of, ‘ok, this is where the team is now,’ it’s not like you’re saying ‘that’s it, that’s the end of the growth.’ That’s never been a thing, especially here. But a lot of these teams are still getting better… This is the next test, but tomorrow is not a final exam. It’s just the next test. They’ll be different in a month.”