We’re less than 24 hours away from the big game, which means it’s time to check in with the national media to see what they’re saying about Kentucky/Kansas. Here’s a roundup of their predictions…
Maybe they’re feeling themselves. Maybe they’re caught up in the hype, in the bright lights, in the hoopla that comes with life on the Kentucky campus. Don’t kid yourself about Kentucky’s loss at Tennessee on Tuesday. The problems started with the squad’s recent 88-81 win at Mississippi State, which outscored the Wildcats 47-42 after the break and cut Kentucky’s 18-point lead with 12:21 to play down to three points with 7:49 to go.
That Kentucky team competed as if it had a magic button. Just push it once and the Wildcats will miraculously regain a double-digit lead. Nah. That’s not how it works, and the Wildcats learned the hard way in Knoxville.
Their Saturday opponents also will enter Rupp Arena after a loss. You can’t condone any doomsday theories about a Kansas team that lost for the first time on the mainland — Indiana defeated the Jayhawks in Hawaii on Nov. 11 — when it faced West Virginia in Morgantown on Tuesday. But you can cite this number: 6-for-15 from the charity stripe. That poor effort extended a season of drama at the free throw line (63.2 percent, No. 332 in the country). Plus, Kansas announced late Thursday that Carlton Bragg has been suspended indefinitely.
Both sets of challenges will matter on Saturday. So you have to ask yourself this question: What’s more probable? A powerful Kentucky team shifting into cruise control far too early in a packed Rupp Arena or Kansas missing one or two shots — or free throws — and failing to protect the rim down the stretch of a tight road game?
Prediction: Kentucky 97, Kansas 92
Forget the nitty-gritty of stakes and schedule and eventual NCAA tournament seeding. Set aside the relative merits of leaguewide television exposure and audience engagement. However Kansas ended up playing a true road game at Kentucky in the last few days before the calendar ticks over into February, the fact of the matter is, it is happening. Whatever inconvenience this causes the teams involved is surely outweighed by the sheer radness of the result. Even the two teams’ road losses Tuesday night didn’t do much to diminish the excitement. Does anyone think these two teams aren’t still among the best, oh, five or six in the country?
More specifically: Has any game this season put two better backcourts on the same floor at the same time?
I was inclined to take Kentucky in this game anyway, but it became an easier pick after Kansas announced on Thursday that sophomore forward Carlton Bragg was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. This might be the only time all season that Kansas is facing a backcourt that is better than its own. That means the game will be won in the frontcourt, where UK had a decided advantage even before the Bragg news.
Kentucky 83, Kansas 72
Perhaps the most fascinating part of this matchup, however, is that both John Calipari and Bill Self and reinvented themselves as coaches this season. Typically, their teams are two of the best defensive teams in the country, and neither of them have played like it thus far this season. Cal has turned his team, which is usually a slow-paced, marauding force, into the nation’s most dangerous transition team. Self? He has Kansas playing small-ball, which is something that he has been morally opposed to in the past.
Which brings me to Josh Jackson. The No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2016, Jackson plays the four for the Jayhawks and, so long as he stays out of foul trouble, is the guy that creates the matchup problems for them. How Kentucky handles that, and how the Jayhawks respond to Adebayo in the paint, will decide this game.
PREDICTION: With Carlton Bragg Jr. available, I would’ve had to think long and hard about picking Kentucky (-8). Without Bragg? It seems like easy money.
Feel free to add yours in the comments.