How Kentucky and Kansas match up position by position — with a game prediction:
▪ Malik Monk will be thrilled that Kansas is coming to Rupp Arena. Kentucky’s leading scorer (21.9 points a game) is shooting 53.1 percent from the floor and 39.2 percent on three-pointers in Rupp but has made only 43.2 percent and 27.8 on treys in true road games. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound freshman is the tallest of the three guards in John Calipari’s starting lineup but, at 2.4 rebounds a game, the least productive rebounder.
▪ A 6-8, 205-pound product of Ukraine, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (pronounced svee-AT-uh-slahv muh-KIE-luke) is an offensively polished import. The junior (10.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg) is shooting 42.3 percent on three-point shots (44-of-104) and had a team-high seven assists in Tuesday’s 85-69 loss at West Virginia. On Jan. 3, with his father visiting from Ukraine in the stands to see it, Mykhailiuk hit the running game-winner — most would say with the benefit of an extra step that was not called traveling — that beat Kansas State 90-88.
▪ Kentucky’s Wenyen Garbriel and Derek Willis struggled in UK’s unexpected road loss Tuesday at Tennessee. The 6-9, 213-pound Gabriel missed five of six shots, all three of his three-point tries and two free throws in the 82-80 defeat. The freshman from Manchester, N.H., did snare nine rebounds. Over the past four games, Gabriel is averaging 9.5 rebounds. Willis, a 6-9, 228-pound senior from Bullitt East, was 1-of-5 from the floor in Knoxville and missed three treys. He did grab seven boards. In the two games before Tennessee, Willis shot a combined 9-of-14, and 4-of-7 on three-point tries.
▪ Josh Jackson was the top-ranked high school player in the Rivals 150 for 2016. Although playing “one position up” from his natural small forward spot, the 6-8, 207-pound Kansas freshman has mostly backed up his recruiting hype. The Detroit product is second on the Jayhawks in scoring (15.5 ppg) and rebounding (6.6) while averaging 3.1 assists. In the difficult road environment at West Virginia, Jackson had a team-high 22 points that included 4-of-4 three-point shooting. If the game is close Saturday, Jackson has not shot free throws well (58-of-104, 55.8 percent).
▪ John Calipari is demanding that the Kentucky guards feed Bam Adebayo the ball in the post more often. Since SEC play began, the 6-10, 260-pound freshman has hit 72.7 percent of his shots (40 of 55). Yet Adebayo (13.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg) has taken more than six shots in a game only twice in league games. The Little Washington, N.C., product hit seven of eight field goals and seven of eight free throws at Tennessee en route to 21 points.
▪ Kansas senior Landen Lucas (7.3 ppg, 8 rpg) has value beyond the statistics. The 6-10, 250-pound redshirt senior keeps possessions viable with relentless offensive rebounding — of his 10 total boards at West Virginia, five were off the offensive glass. Offensively, Lucas is a willing passer. Defensively, he is smart and tough, and understands angles and leverage in the low post. He will be an interesting test for Adebayo.
▪ For Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe, the past three games have been a slog. The 6-3, 210-pound sophomore from Newark, N.J., is 9-of-28 shooting with 11 turnovers. On the plus side, Briscoe seemed to find some offensive rhythm late in the loss at Tennessee and finished with 11 points (5-of-12 shooting), 14 rebounds and five assists. Briscoe (14.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 4.2 assists) had 12 points and five assists in UK’s 90-84 overtime loss at Kansas last season.
▪ Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham originally signed with Appalachian State before changing his mind, going to a prep school and then re-entering the recruiting pool at a higher level. Last year, Graham outplayed Oklahoma star Buddy Hield head-to-head in Norman, scoring 27 points while holding Hield to 5-of-15 shooting in a KU win. The 6-2, 185-pound junior would seem likely to draw the defensive assignment on Malik Monk. Graham (13.7 ppg, 3 rpg and 4.7 assists) had 11 points and five assists vs. UK a season ago.
▪ De’Aaron Fox (16.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg and 5.9 assists) returned at Tennessee after sitting out the second half against South Carolina due to a turned ankle. Kentucky’s electric point guard did not seem as dynamic as usual in Knoxville, although Fox had 17 points (4-of-9 shooting) and four assists. The 6-3, 187-pound freshman from Houston has struggled at times defensively and faces a big challenge against a veteran and talented Kansas backcourt.
▪ As a senior, Kansas star Frank Mason III has emerged as a candidate for national player of the year. The 5-11, 190-pound product of Petersburg, Va., drilled a jumper with 1.8 seconds left to beat Duke, 77-75, in KU’s second game of the year. He’s a dogged on-ball defender, so it will be intriguing if Mason (19.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.2 assists) is assigned to guard Fox. After struggling in the loss at West Virginia (6-of-16 shooting, three turnovers), Mason figures to be quite motivated in Rupp Arena. He had 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists against Kentucky last year.
▪ Dominique Hawkins has given Kentucky impeccable floor play (43 assists to eight turnovers) but the senior guard from Madison Central has struggled with his shot (19-of-55 field goals, 8-of-27 three-pointers). Sophomore 7-footer Isaac Humphries has hit six of his past nine field-goal tries, but the Australian had only a foul to show for five minutes at Tennessee. Senior swingman Mychal Mulder (6.5 ppg in 11.6 minutes a game) has missed Kentucky’s past two games due to illness and is not expected back for KU.
▪ Kansas is down to eight scholarship players. KU lost impressive freshman 7-footer Udoka Azubuike (5 ppg, 4.4 rpg) for the season due to torn wrist ligaments suffered in a December practice. Bill Self announced Thursday that 6-10 sophomore Carlton Bragg Jr. (6.1 ppg and 4.8 rpg) had been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Lagerald Vick, a 6-5 sophomore from Memphis, is KU’s top perimeter reserve (7.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 40.7 percent on three-pointers). Mitch Lightfoot (1.1 ppg, 1.2 rpg) is a 6-8, 210-pound freshman who was Gatorade Arizona High School Player of the Year in 2015-16. Mississippi Rebels transfer Dwight Coleby (1.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg) is a 6-9, 240-pound junior. Each will presumably get more clock now.
John Calipari and Bill Self have faced each other twice in NCAA championship games, so the coaches’ careers will always be linked. Self and Kansas rallied past Cal and Memphis for the national title in 2008; Calipari and Kentucky held off KU to win it all in 2012. In all-time meetings between the two winningest programs in men’s college basketball history, UK leads KU 22-7. Under Self, the Jayhawks have gone 4-3 vs. the Wildcats, however, including last season’s win in Allen Fieldhouse. This year, Kentucky has the more acute need for victory. The Wildcats have only one marquee win, North Carolina. With UK playing in the lackluster SEC, Kansas represents the Cats’ final chance for a move-the-needle victory. It’s hard to gauge what impact the police investigation into an alleged sexual assault Dec. 17 in the Kansas men’s basketball dormitory will have on the Jayhawks.
Kentucky 89, Kansas 85