The No. 1 and No. 2 programs in Division I basketball history will play Saturday night at Rupp Arena.
The No. 9 and No. 13 programs in the NCAA’s NET ranking will play Saturday night at Rupp Arena.
Which of these two statements strikes you as more important likely depends on how deeply you are involved in the Kentucky Wildcats and Kansas Jayhawks.
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If you are a fan of the game in general, then the meeting of two of the greatest programs in the game is likely to catch your interest even, if they weren’t both fighting to claim a spot on this season’s top tier. If you are a fan of UK or KU, then what you want most is to claim a quality win.
Kentucky has won 2,280 games in its 116 years of competition, more than any other big-time program. Kansas is second at 2,264 in 121 years. Each has won more than 70 percent of its games, a figure only four major programs have achieved. So we know what’s happening in the showcase game of the Big 12/SEC Challenge is important, but there are numbers more germane to this particular occasion:
1: Kansas has won three consecutive games in the series. They last played in the 2016-17 season, with KU invading Rupp and vexing the Wildcats with a zone defense that helped the Jayhawks grab a 79-63 victory. There is a different dynamic this time, though, with Kansas still working through its adjustment to the absence of center Udoka Azubuike, lost for the year with a hand injury, and Kentucky beginning to discover its offense in a five-game winning streak.
The Jayhawks have been using a lineup with 6-9 Dedric Lawson as a nominal center, adjacent to 6-5 Marcus Garrett, 6-5 Quentin Grimes and 6-5 LaGerald Vick. Freshman Devon Dotson is the point guard. They are 4-2 with that base lineup.
2. Kentucky has won five consecutive games. The Wildcats have scored at least 1.0 points per possession during that winning streak, something they failed to do in an SEC-opening loss at Alabama. Part of the consistency in that department comes from freshman wings Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson, who contributed 20 points each in the road win at Auburn and are combining for 23.4 points and .461 shooting from the field.
“Herro and Keldon Johnson are both having terrific years and are on a roll right now,” KU coach Bill Self told reporters on Thursday. “They are good. They are a team that can win a national championship. I know everybody thought that before the season, and then you have one game where the attention shifts. … They’ve grinded their way back to where they are right now, and that’s being one of the best teams in the country.”
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3. Post-Doke Kansas is minus-5 on the boards. Since the Jayhawks lost their massive center, they’ve been able to out-rebound smallish teams like Iowa State, largely because All-America candidate Dedric Lawson delivered 11 or more rebounds four times in six games. But bigger teams like Texas (by seven) and Baylor (by 19) punished the Jayhawks on the glass.
Kentucky is eighth in the country in offensive rebound percentage and seventh in rebound margin. This is an area of concern for KU.
4. Marcus Garrett averaged 17 points over the past three games. A 6-5 sophomore from Dallas, Garrett had as many double-figure scoring games against high-major opponents in that stretch as in his entire career to that point. Though he struck three times from 3-point range in beating Texas, he is doing it mostly by using the space created in KU’s halfcourt offense to get by defenders for drives to the rim. He shot .665 on 2-pointers during that surge. Garrett became a starter when Azubuike was injured and Self decided to employ a smaller lineup.
“I don’t think he’s done anything different,” Self said of Garrett. “He’s coachable. He’s tough. He tries hard. He’s smart. He’s got fast hands and he loves to compete. But we knew that when we recruited him. I don’t think he’s done a lot different, except just be himself.”
5. Ashton Hagans has six consecutive games with at least four assists. Now firmly established as Kentucky’s point guard, Hagans has shown he is more than just a defensive whiz by averaging 13.4 points and 5.6 assists and shooting .558 from the field during the team’s winning streak. He remains a reluctant long-distance shooter, attempting only a half-dozen and making one over those five games, but he has come to understand the importance of not passing up open shots and disrupting the Wildcats offensive flow.
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6. KU will not play a higher-ranked opponent — in NET — before the NCAAs. That makes this a huge game for the Jayhawks. They have two scheduled games against No. 17 Texas Tech. It’s possible the Red Raiders could storm down the stretch and Kentucky could stumble, which would make Tech a higher-rated opponent. But as it stands, and as the trends have gone lately, the No. 8 Wildcats will remain an important opponent for KU.
The reverse is true for Kentucky, just not as much. The Wildcats still have two games against No. 5 Tennessee, plus a home game against No. 12 LSU. There are more opportunities for Kentucky to get big wins. But every one helps.
It is odd to see the Big 12/SEC Challenge at this time of year, when all the other conferences are engaged in league play. ESPN did not have good fortune with the matchups established, with only two of the 10 games including two ranked teams. One of those is KU-UK, however.
That alone makes the Challenge worth our time.
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