The stage is now set for a titantic clash of blue bloods in Rupp Arena. College GameDay has come and gone so it’s now time to get ready for this massive January tilt between two powers.
The run John Calipari has had at Kentucky doesn’t have many peers, but he will face one of the few men who has had a near equal run. Under Bill Self, the Jayhawks have nine 30-plus win seasons and an incredible 14 consecutive Big XII regular season titles.
On one of the biggest stages of the college basketball season to this point, we’ll see which program and hall of fame head coach can come out on top.
Nuts and Bolts
After 15 seasons and 418 wins, Roy Williams finally made a move when North Carolina called him home. It was a stun to the Rock Chalk faithful, but the guy they tagged to replace him has topped what Williams did in Lawrence.
Bill Self is now in his 15th season at Kansas and he has a higher winning percentage, five more conference titles, and one more national championship than Williams. Self’s run in Lawrence has allowed the Jayhawks to stay nationally relevant for 30-plus years and they appear to show no signs of slowing down this year.
Self has done a remarkable job attracting talent to The Phog. Under his watch, the Jayhawks are consistently among the elite in the national recruiting rankings. The former Tulsa and Illinois head coach has had 14 first round draft picks and has a couple more on this year’s team. This run has been successful due to the top end talent Self is consistently able to attract.
Kansas will be a battled tested club that comes into what should be a hostile crowd at Rupp Arena this evening. The Jayhawks have played the toughest schedule in the country this season. KU has faced 11 teams in the top-50 of KenPom in just 19 games. Their non-conference slate featured matchups against Michigan State, Tennessee, and now Kentucky. They won’t shrink under the lights.
This will be the 32nd meeting between the two programs with Kentucky owning a commanding 22-9 series lead. However, the Jayhawks have won the last three meetings. Since arriving in Lexington, John Calipari is 3-3 in head-to-head matchups with Bill Self and Kansas. The Jayhawks have came away victorious in their last two trips to Rupp Arena.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 6-point favorite with a total of 144.5. That’s a projected final score of around 75-69. On the season, Kentucky is 9-9 against the spread while Kansas is 8-11. At home, UK is 5-6 against the number and Kansas is 1-3 in true road games. The under is 5-2 in Kansas’ last seven games.
There is no shortage of talent on the Kansas roster and it starts with five-star freshman point guard Devon Dotson. The Charlotte, North Carolina native and McDonald’s All-American has been a very important piece for the Jayhawks this season.
The 6-foot-2 point is shooting over 40 percent from three and has been this team’s best perimeter defender. He’s playing just under 32 minutes per game and is the team’s top assist man. He’s just been very, very solid in his rookie campaign.
Next to Dotson in the backcourt is another star freshman. Quentin Grimes was another five-star coup for Bill Self and the Texas native and top-10 prospect has started every game for the Jayhawks. However, his play to this point has been a bit of a disappointment.
Grimes currently gets the least amount of playing time of any perimeter player in the rotation and his three-point shot has been very hit or miss. Like many freshman, he’s struggled on defense and it’s been a year full of growing pains for the blue-chip recruit.
The Jayhawks are very young on the outside, but they also have some experience. LaGerald Vick has been in college for what feels like a decade and the one-time UK target has been excellent in his senior season. The Memphis native provides some much needed floor spacing for this offense.
The 6-foot-5 wing is putting up 15 points per game and is pouring in three-pointers at a 45.7 percent clip on 127 attempts. He’s played at least 32 minutes in five consecutive games and is a player Bill Self desperately wants out on the floor at all times.
There are two more guards in the rotation that each earn playing time for what they get done on the defensive end of the floor. Marcus Garrett will be one of the best perimeter defenders UK has faced this season. Charlie Moore plays a lot less but he is not far behind on the defensive end. Look for each player to get a chance at trying to slow down Ashton Hagans tonight.
In the pivot, Kansas has one of the best players in the country in Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson. The 6-foot-8 multi-skilled big would be getting serious national player of the year looks if it wasn’t for Zion Williamson. He will be Bill Self’s next first round pick. He has been a revelation for this basketball team.
The Memphis native has 13 double-doubles in 19 games and has been one of the most dominant players in college basketball this season. Lawson has multiple 30-point outings on the season and he’ll be an easy pick for Big XII player of the year honors. After being toasted by Zion Williamson, Lawson will present another difficult challenge for UK’s interior.
The plan for Kansas was to have a dominant frontline with Udoka Azubuike teaming up with Lawson. The seven-foot senior was considered by many to be the best five-man in the country. However, he was lost for the season early this month due to a torn hand ligament that required surgery. He’ll be off to the NBA after a very effective college run that was cut short by numerous injuries.
Without him, the Jayhawks are having a hard time finding a replacement.
The Jayhawks are still waiting for the NCAA to clear Silvio De Sousa and on their roster there is really no other big to fill the role. It’s been small ball city for the Jayhawks.
Ochai Agbaji had his redshirt pulled by Bill Self this month and the 6-foot-5 wing is best suited to play the small ball four. The Jayhawks will also use Quentin Grimes, LaGerald Vick, and Dedric’s brother K.J. Lawson in this role. It is clear that this is an obvious weakness of the club.
With Azubuike out, Dedric Lawson is having to play a lot of five. That helps the Jayhawks on offense, but certainly limits them on defense. When he needs a break, Self will go with junior Mitch Lightfoot and freshman David McCormack. Neither is playing more than nine minutes per game.
Keys to Victory
- With the loss of Udoka Azubuike and no other serviceable bigs with the suspension of Silvio De Sousa, it’s very obvious what Kansas wants to do. The Jayhawks will play a 4-out, 1-in offense where they will force feed Dedric Lawson touches. Despite the small lineup, KU gets 55 percent of its points from two-point range and that is because of the Memphis transfer. Kentucky’s interior defense will be challenged and the Wildcats must be up to the task. They’re facing one of the best scorers in college basketball.
- On the perimeter, three-point shooting can be an issue for KU and that’s a dangerous proposition when you consider they play a heavy perimeter offense. LaGerald Vick is shooting a scorching 45.7 percent from three while the rest of the team is just making 30 percent of their combined attempts. If Kentucky can put the clamps on Vick, it could be a very long offensive day for KU.
- Ashton Hagans has been getting a lot of attention recently and most of it is well deserved. However, the improved play of Tyler Herro has really allowed this UK team to make some serious strides. The blue-chipper from Wisconsin is shooting 45 percent from three during UK’s five-game win streak. He’s hit 22 consecutive free throws and is playing at a really high level. This team is tough to stop when Herro is putting the ball in the hole.
- On the glass, Kansas has not been a great rebounding team. The loss of Udoka Azubuike has hurt in a lot of ways, but this may have the biggest effect on this game. Kentucky should get plenty of second chance opportunities and they need to cash them in.
Kansas has won the previous three meetings, but the last UK victory was an absolute blistering. The Wildcats embarrassed the Jayhawks to begin a crazy run in 2014-2015. These highlights are still very fun to watch.