The matchup of star guards highlights Saturday’s Kentucky-Kansas game. Of course, freshmen Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox lead UK in scoring, steals and infectious pizzazz.
Senior Frank Mason III and junior Devonte’ Graham are the first and third most prolific scorers for Kansas. They form a battle-tested foundation of this Jayhawks team.
“You’ve got the prototypical experience versus youth,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said on a teleconference Thursday. “And (UK’s) youth is lottery-pick talent, without question, that has shown they can play at the very highest level.”
Self allowed that there are other key matchups that may decide this Kentucky-Kansas game: Perhaps the Jayhawks’ “bigs” contending with Bam Adebayo or UK’s forward combination of Wenyen Gabriel-Derek Willis containing KU star freshman Josh Jackson.
“But,” Self said of the guards, “certainly most eyes will be on those guys.”
Kentucky Coach John Calipari all but recoiled when asked about the excitement generated by this game’s backcourt matchup. Perhaps it was because Kentucky is coming off a loss at Tennessee in which at times the freshmen looked like freshmen — too caught up in the game within the game.
“What I don’t want to have is our guys get into one-on-one stuff,” Calipari said. “We’ve slipped a little bit in our ball movement and creating shots for each other, and kind of slipping into ‘Let me go get something here, and if I can’t, let me try to pass it now.’”
Sean Farnham, ESPN’s lead analyst for the Southeastern Conference, scoffed at the notion of a backcourt duel or even one coach trying to motivate his guards by saying some observers insisted the rival team’s players were better.
“I don’t think that comes into play here at all,” said Farnham, who incidentally is not working ESPN’s telecast of Kentucky-Kansas. “I really don’t. Because I think both these guys are so confident within themselves. If you told De’Aaron Fox, ‘By the way, they think Frank Mason is better than you, De’Aaron’s going to be like, ‘Uh, OK.’”
To challenge a player to show he’s better is to encourage him to play outside the team concept, Farnham said. That’s exactly what Calipari lamented after Kentucky lost at Tennessee.
“What you’re doing is essentially applying pressure to that player to do something special or different or unique,” Farnham said. “I think in a game with the magnitude we have Saturday night in Rupp Arena, it’s about what team can be themselves and not get caught up in the overall environment.”
The winning formula is to “just stay in the moment and execute and do what they do,” Farnham said. “Not worry about everything else that can be around the periphery.”
Farnham suggested an alternative to trying to out-perform the Kansas guards: Throw the ball to Adebayo. “When you get to the half-court, your first look has to be to Bam,” Farnham said.
Of Adebayo, Self said, “He’s a monster.”
Self suggested that the third player in UK’s backcourt, sophomore Isaiah Briscoe, is under-appreciated, or at least lost in the glare of Monk and Fox who “certainly play at a level that is better on certain days than anybody else in the country.”
Kansas’ guards might not be as flashy. But they are effective.
“Pretty consistent,” Self said of Mason and Graham. “Tough. Solid. And been through a lot of wars together.”
Mason has made himself a contender for Big 12 Conference Player of the Year, Farnham said. Mason and Fox would be on Farnham’s ballot for the Wooden Award as National Player of the Year.
Calipari also spoke of a steadiness in Kansas’ backcourt play. Of course, steadiness has not been the best way to describe Kentucky freshmen at this still-early stage of development.
“Watching tape from last year, they’re not going to make a whole lot of mistakes that are unforced,” Calipari said of Mason and Graham. “If you leave them open, if you lose sight, it’s a three.”
Mason and Graham are shooting 52.8 and 39.2 percent from three-point range this season, respectively.
No. 2 Kansas at No. 4 Kentucky
6:15 p.m. (ESPN)