What’s the matchup to watch when Kentucky plays Kansas?
Though drenched in the bluest of blue-blood pedigree, Kentucky-Kansas is just one game. Never mind how this one game is expected to provide compelling basketball drama. Ignore the presence of ESPN’s “College GameDay” show decorating the marquee matchup of this year’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
That was the message and the perspective that Kentucky and several ESPN analysts delivered Friday.
When asked about his players’ demeanor going into the game, UK Coach John Calipari said, “This is one where we’ll learn about each other. Who’s amped up. Who’s calmed down. Like this is the kind of game you do that with. So we’ll see.”
Why does this matchup of top-10 teams serve as a good learning atmosphere?
“Because this is a team you’ll be playing if you’re lucky enough to get in the (NCAA) tournament and advance,” Calipari said of the Jayhawks. “At some point, you’re playing a team like this. Let’s see how good we are.”
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas reminded reporters — and fans — to be cautious about drawing conclusions.
“I know Kentucky is going to be a different team in a month than they are now, as long as everyone stays healthy,” he said. “So when you give an assessment — ‘OK, this is where the team is now’ — it’s not like you’re saying, ‘OK, that’s it.’
“This is the next test. But tomorrow is not a final exam. It’s just the next test.”
Anyone needing a cautionary tale about the shelf life of instant evaluations could cite Kentucky’s 118-84 loss to Duke on the season’s opening night.
“The obituary was written,” another ESPN analyst, Seth Greenberg, said. “It was a tad bit premature, obviously. . . . This is the next step.”
Reid Travis said he and his UK teammates are aware of how quickly evaluations can change. He said the players have been good about ignoring praise and criticism.
“I know a lot of people after the first game kind of jumped off a little bit,” he said. “Thought we weren’t the team we were.
“And now that we’ve won some more games (they’ve) kind of come back on. . . . We understand the journey of the season and where we want to be. Just staying true to who we are is the biggest thing.”
Kentucky-Kansas might be two games in one.
On the front line, Travis is one of four capable “bigs” for Kentucky. Kansas announced on Jan. 6 that its center, Udoka Azubuike, underwent season-ending surgery on his right wrist.
Kansas relies on Dedric Lawson, a transfer from Memphis, to carry the load. Calipari said Lawson was “as good as we’re going to play against.”
Lawson leads the Jayhawks in scoring (19.5 ppg), rebounding (10.9 rpg), blocks (21) and free throws made and attempted.
“They can punch this thing down on the block,” Greenberg said of the Wildcats’ four-to-one advantage around the basket. “If they get Lawson in foul trouble, that changes the whole dynamic of the game.”
Kansas can counter with a four-guard lineup that would force one of UK’s “bigs” to defend a smaller, quicker opponent out on the floor.
“It’s going to put a lot of pressure on PJ (Washington) in his matchup with (Marcus) Garrett,” Greenberg said.
Travis voiced confidence that Kentucky’s “bigs” can defend on the perimeter.
“We’ve been preparing all year for that: to stay down and guard guards,” he said.
Calipari cited effort and energy as two important factors in this Kentucky-Kansas game. Kansas’ ability to execute will put added importance on “sustaining effort where we still have those breakdowns and let teams back in the game,” the UK coach said.
That happened in the second half at Auburn last weekend where a 17-point Kentucky lead evaporated, said Calipari, adding, “at some point they’re going to have to learn it’s going to end your season if you play that way (in the postseason).”
As for energy, Calipari said, “If I have to talk energy, we have no shot of winning the game. This will be an energy game.”
No. 9 Kansas at No. 8 Kentucky
What: SEC/Big 12 Challenge
When: 6 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 15-3 (5-1 SEC), Kansas 16-3 (5-2 Big 12)
Series: Kentucky leads 22-9
Last meeting: Kansas won 65-61 on Nov. 14, 2017, at the Champions Classic in Chicago.