Kentucky vs. Kansas: Calipari nostalgic as Cats prepare for 'a war'
How Kentucky and Kansas match up at every position — with a game prediction:
Jamal Murray (team-best 17.5 points a game; a three-pointer in every game this season) did not shoot well (4-for-14) in Kentucky’s 88-54 demolition of Missouri on Wednesday, but the freshman turned in one of his more impressive all-around performances. The 6-foot-4, 207-pound product of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, claimed nine rebounds to go with his 11 points and added two assists with no turnovers. For a player with more turnovers (53) than assists (48) — John Calipari has challenged him to make more “winning plays” — it felt like progress.
Like Murray, Kansas’ Wayne Selden Jr. is a big (6-5, 230 pounds) third guard. The junior out of Roxbury, Mass., is the Jayhawks’ second-leading scorer (14.6) and is shooting 50.2 percent from the floor and 46.7 on three-point tries. If the game is close at the end, Selden Jr. is not a good foul shooter (62.3 percent).
Former Bullitt East star Derek Willis has been the breakout player of Kentucky’s Southeastern Conference season. Over UK’s last four games, the 6-9, 220-pound junior is averaging 12.3 points and 10 rebounds. In the same span, Willis has hit nine of 19 three-point tries, giving UK a “stretch four” and unclogging the lane for “dribble-drivers.”
It only seems like Dr. James Naismith was the Kansas coach who recruited Jayhawks star Perry Ellis to Lawrence. The 6-8, 225-pound senior from Wichita leads KU in scoring (16.7) and rebounding (6.6). Ellis is shooting 50.2 percent from the floor and 45.5 percent from three-point range. Ellis has been strong in the big games, too, as evidenced by his 27 points and 13 rebounds in the Jayhawks’ triple-overtime victory over Oklahoma.
Kentucky’s Alex Poythress can be very, very good: See the 25 points, seven rebounds at Alabama or the 16 points against Vanderbilt’s sky-scraping frontline. The 6-8, 230-pound senior from Clarksville, Tenn., can also be very absent: See six points, three rebounds in UK’s upset loss at Auburn. You have to acknowledge, though, that wondering which Poythress is going to show up is a fascinating part of this season’s Kentucky basketball experience.
Bill Self has been searching for a consistent starter in the post. Though many Kansas fans have been calling for ballyhooed freshmen Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg Jr. to assume larger roles, Self went with 6-10, 240-pound junior Landen Lucas (4 ppg, 5.2 rpg) in KU’s loss at Iowa State on Monday. Lucas is a role player, but he understands Kansas’ defensive schemes and will flip in a jump hook from time to time. The status of former Arkansas Razorback Hunter Mickelson, a 6-10, 245-pound senior, is unclear. He suffered a high ankle sprain in practice this week. Mickelson (2.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg) leads Kansas with 20 blocked shots.
UK’s Isaiah Briscoe turned in a stellar all-around game against Missouri, scoring 15 points with six rebounds and six assists. Briscoe has struggled mightily with his free-throw shooting (39.1 percent) but went 5-for-6 from the foul line, drawing Rupp Arena roars with each make.
Devonte’ Graham gives Kansas a second point guard in its starting lineup. The 6-2, 175-pound sophomore from Raleigh, N.C., is averaging 10.5 points and 3.7 assists versus 1.2 turnovers. Graham had only seven points in the loss at Iowa State, a game in which the Cyclones’ backcourt substantially outplayed the Jayhawks’ guards.
Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis is on a roll. The 5-9 mighty mite has scored 20 points or more in seven of UK’s last nine games. On the season, Ulis is averaging 15.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and has a 6.1 to 2 assist-to-turnover ratio. The big stage of facing Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse figures to bring out the best in the fiery Ulis.
Kansas point guard Frank Mason III is small, too, at 5-11, 185. The junior from Petersburg, Va., is averaging 13.4 points and 4.9 rebounds and has a 4.8 assists to 2.1 turnovers ratio. However, Mason has been turnover-prone in some of Kansas’ bigger games — he had six in the loss at Iowa State and lost the ball seven times against West Virginia’s full-court press.
After well-documented struggles, ballyhooed Kentucky freshman big man Skal Labissiere has two double-figure scoring games (11 points at Arkansas; 12 versus Missouri) in UK’s past three games. We’ll find out if the willowy, 6-11, 225-pounder is ready to contribute in a big-time road game. With the strong play of Willis, Marcus Lee (7.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg) has seen his starting position go away. It will be interesting to see if that lights a fire under the junior forward. Freshman swingman Charles Matthews (2.4 ppg, 1.7 rpg) has clawed his way back into the Wildcats rotation the past two weeks and has given UK some “energy.”
Kansas sharpshooter Brannen Greene, a 6-7, 215-pound junior, can be a liability defensively but shoots it too well (20-for-37 for 54.1 percent on three-pointers) not to play. Ukrainian wing Svi Mykhailivk (5.7 points), a thin, 6-8, 195-pound sophomore, is averaging 5.7 points but has struggled with his shot (39.2 percent field goal shooter). Freshmen big men Bragg (4.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 59.2 percent shooter) and Diallo (4.4 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 13 blocked shots in 14 games) were five-star recruits in 2015 according to Rivals.com. If Self goes small up front to match UK, 6-7 senior forward Jamari Traylor (2.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 7 starts) could get the call.
After rising to No. 1 in the country, Kansas has lost three of its last five games. The Jayhawks need a victory — and they don’t lose too often in Lawrence. Kansas has won 34 home games in a row and, under Self, KU is 200-9 in Allen Fieldhouse. A veteran Kansas team will no doubt be looking for redemption after absorbing a 72-40 beatdown from Kentucky last season. UK is 7-4 all-time in Lawrence but has lost on its last three visits. Kentucky is 2-3 in true road games this season, but the Wildcats travel to Kansas amidst their best stretch of basketball this season. Following a horrid road loss at Auburn, UK has won three in a row, all by double digits. Facing a veteran Kansas on its home court will be a good measuring stick for the improving Cats.
Kansas 74, Kentucky 71