Advertisement

Kentucky might be hitting stride just in time for trip to Kansas

Advertisement

Kentucky head coach John Calipari yells at his players during the first half of the Champions Classic on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari yells at his players during the first half of the Champions Classic on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. by Nick Krug

The hype for Kansas versus Kentucky might not be quite as deafening as college basketball fans hoped when the Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup was announced. Both teams aren’t currently ranked in the top five, like they were in the preseason polls. But that doesn’t mean Saturday night’s showdown (6 p.m., ESPN) between No. 4 Kansas and No. 20 Kentucky should be any less intense.

Kentucky (16-4 overall, 6-2 SEC), in fact, actually might be hitting its stride. Following a disappointing loss at Auburn on Jan. 16, coach John Calipari said the Wildcats responded in their next three games — a road win at Arkansas, and home routs of Vanderbilt and Missouri.

“We’re finally starting to become a team where I’m like, ‘OK, it looks like somebody I coach,’” Calipari said.

During the past 3 games, UK is averaging 81.3 points, giving up only 59.0 points, shooting 49.7% and holding opponents to 34.6%. On 3-point shots, Kentucky is making 36.4% and limiting foes to 26.8%.

“We’re beginning to have a swagger, because we’re guarding,” Calipari said.

Rebounding will be key for the Wildcats, too, at Kansas (16-4 overall, 5-3 Big 12). Kentucky averages a +10.0 rebound margin in wins this season, and is -1.8 in losses.

And, of course, if you recall the UK block party that broke out the last time these two programs met, early in the 2014-15 season, defending the rim will have plenty to do with UK’s chances of winning in Allen Fieldhouse. The Wildcats steamrolled KU, 72-40, in Indianapolis, blocking 11 shots in the process.

This season, with a different roster, Kentucky is swatting 6.3 shots a game in wins, and only 3.8 in losses.

No, UK doesn’t have the kind of devastating team it has in past years under Calipari, with future NBA All-Stars such as Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins or (eventual all-star) Karl-Anthony Towns. But according to DraftExpress.com, there are five soon-to-be NBA draft picks on the Kentucky roster.

(The site also projects three Jayhawks in the upcoming June draft: Cheick Diallo 21st, Svi Mykhailiuk 25th, Wayne Selden Jr. 55th.)

For a non-conference, regular-season game in late January, Calipari might have said it best:

“This will be a war.”

Meet the Wildcats the Jayhawks have to worry about Saturday night, when KU (2,169 wins) will try to get a little closer to college basketball’s all-time winningest program, Kentucky (2,194).

KENTUCKY STARTERS

No. 23 — G Jamal Murray | 6-4, 207, fr.

Kentucky guard Jamal Murray, right, moves the ball as UCLA guard Isaac Hamilton defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. UCLA won 87-77. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

Kentucky guard Jamal Murray, right, moves the ball as UCLA guard Isaac Hamilton defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. UCLA won 87-77. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

- No. 9 pick in 2016 NBA Draft, according to DraftExpress.com

  • The most deadly 3-point shooter in the building on Saturday night might be freshman Jamal Murray (17.5 points per game), who has made 53 of 140 from downtown this season (37.9%).

  • The reigning SEC Freshman of the Week (18.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in two wins) has made at least one 3-pointer in every game this season. Murray averages 2.7 successful 3-pointers a game.

  • Scored 33 points (27 in the second half) vs. Ohio State, the 2nd-highest individual total in the Calipari era. Murray drilled 7 from 3-point range in the loss.

  • Murray is tied for the team lead with 25 steals this season, and ranks 3rd among UK players in offensive rebounds, with 30.

No. 3 — PG Tyler Ulis | 5-9, 160, soph.

Kentucky's Tyler Ulis, right, shoots around Arkansas' Trey Thompson (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Fayetteville, Ark. Kentucky won 80-66. (AP Photo/Samantha Baker)

Kentucky's Tyler Ulis, right, shoots around Arkansas' Trey Thompson (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Fayetteville, Ark. Kentucky won 80-66. (AP Photo/Samantha Baker)

- No. 47 pick in 2016 NBA Draft, according to DraftExpress.com

  • Kentucky’s offense runs through the capable hands of sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis (15.5 points, 6.1 assists), who rarely comes off the floor (35.8 minutes). According to Calipari, Ulis is one of the best floor generals he has ever coached.

  • Ullis, like Murray, has 25 steals. Unlike Murray, he’s not quite as dangerous from 3-point range: 27 of 88 (30.7%).

  • Still, Ulis has put up 20 or more points in 7 of the last 9 games for UK — including each of the past 3 wins.

  • In Kentucky’s easy defeat of Missouri, Ulis became the first Wildcat with at least 4 assists in 13 straight games since Sean Woods did it in the 1990-91 season.

  • Some guys spend too much time taking 2-point jumpers. Ulis isn’t one of them. He shoots 48.8% on shots inside the arc that don’t come at the rim. He has made 44 of 91 2-point jumpers, per hoop-math.com.

No. 22 — F Alex Poythress | 6-8, 230, sr.

Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. (1) watches as Kentucky forward Alex Poythress (22) rejects his floater during the second half of the Champions Classic on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. (1) watches as Kentucky forward Alex Poythress (22) rejects his floater during the second half of the Champions Classic on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. by Nick Krug

  • The old man of the bunch, senior Alex Poythress was a McDonald’s All-American in 2012, and already has a degree in business marketing. Poythress tore an ACL in December of 2014, perhaps prolonging his college career, but has played well this season for UK.

  • Poythress is averaging 9.7 points and a team-best 6.6 rebounds a game, but Calipari thinks he is capable of even more, as UK tries to peak in the weeks ahead: “We need Alex to keep taking strides, like keep getting better. Not be consistent — get better.”

  • The active veteran forward averages 2.1 offensive boards a game, is shooting 59% on the year and has made 56 baskets at the rim.

  • Scored a career-high 25 points at Alabama.

  • In UK victories, Poythress and Marcus Lee are combining for 14.1 rebounds per game. That number for the duo drops to 9.0 in losses.

No. 35 — F Derek Willis | 6-9, 220, jr.

Kentucky forward Derek Willis (35) dunks the ball against Auburn forward Horace Spencer (0) and forward Tyler Harris (12) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 75-70. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Kentucky forward Derek Willis (35) dunks the ball against Auburn forward Horace Spencer (0) and forward Tyler Harris (12) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 75-70. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

  • Junior Derek Willis just recently joined UK’s starting five, and is coming on of late. Willis averages 6.8 points and 3.8 boards on the year.

  • During the last 4 games, Willis is averaging 12.3 points and a team-leading 10.0 boards.

  • Willis dominated against Missouri, posting a new career high, with 18 points, as well as a game-high 12 rebounds.

  • In just his 2nd start of the season, Willis provided 12 points and 7 rebounds in UK’s win at Arkansas, where he also blocked a career-best 4 shots.

  • In his first 40 games for UK, Willis scored 77 total points. He has 94 points in his past 14 games.

  • By the way, Willis can shoot. He drilled 4 of 5 from 3-point range vs. Mizzou and has connected on 24 of 57 from deep this season (42.1%).

  • When opponents foul this big man, Willis makes them pay. He doesn’t get to the foul line a lot, but he has made 24 consecutive entering the game at KU. Willis has made all 16 of his free throws this season and has hit 31 of 34 (91.2%) in his career.

No. 13 — G Isaiah Briscoe | 6-3, 202, fr.

Kentucky's Isaiah Briscoe, middle, shoots between Arizona State's Gerry Blakes (4) and Eric Jacobsen during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 72-58. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Kentucky's Isaiah Briscoe, middle, shoots between Arizona State's Gerry Blakes (4) and Eric Jacobsen during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 72-58. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

- No. 31 pick in 2016 NBA Draft, according to DraftExpress.com

  • A young guard who attacks the glass, freshman Isaiah Briscoe averages 5.3 rebounds and 10.2 points.

  • Briscoe shoots a high percentage overall (45.8%), despite taking too many 3-pointers (4 of 25, 16%).

  • The attacking guard has made 52 shots at the rim this season and has converted on 59.1% of his attempts inside.

  • A consensus top-15 recruit in the Class of 2015, Briscoe has produced some big games here and there for UK, including a 14-point/5-assist showing vs. Mississippi State.

  • Ripped 4 steals in a win over Ole Miss.

KENTUCKY BENCH

No. 00 — F Marcus Lee | 6-9, 224, jr.

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) elevates to the bucket under the outstretched arm of Kentucky forward Marcus Lee (00) during the first half of the Champions Classic on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) elevates to the bucket under the outstretched arm of Kentucky forward Marcus Lee (00) during the first half of the Champions Classic on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. by Nick Krug

- No. 56 pick in 2016 NBA Draft, according to DraftExpress.com

  • This Kentucky front line might not be as imposing as those of other recent Calipari juggernauts, but junior substitute Marcus Lee does his share of defending the rim for UK. Lee leads the team with 1.8 blocks per game.

  • Lee spent most of the season as a starter, but now comes in off the bench. He averages 7.2 points and 6.5 rebounds, and does much of his damage on the offensive glass, leading to his team-leading 64.0% field goal percentage.

  • Lee averages a team-leading 2.9 offensive boards a game, and ranks first on the team with 23 put-backs.

  • Foul trouble vs. LSU and an injury vs. UCLA meant Lee only played a combined 9 minutes in those 2 games, and Kentucky lost both of them.

  • In Kentucky victories, Lee averages 7.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and shoots 66.7% …

  • … But in losses, Lee has put up just 3.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and shot 46.2% from the field.

No. 1 — F Skal Labissiere | 6-11, 225, fr.

Duke center Marshall Plumlee snags a rebound over Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere (1) during the first half of an NCAA basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Duke center Marshall Plumlee snags a rebound over Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere (1) during the first half of an NCAA basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

- No. 6 overall pick in 2016 NBA Draft, according to DraftExpress.com

  • If you think about it, freshman big Skal Labissiere is Kentucky’s version of (a more succesful) Cheick Diallo. Labissiere projects as his team’s best future pro, but hasn’t caught up with the speed of the college game enough to garner major playing time.

  • Perhaps a lottery pick in June, Labissiere currently averages 7.7 points and a truly disappointing 2.9 rebounds in 17.3 minutes a game.

  • Labissiere does block some shots inside, though: 1.7 a game.

  • Against an overmatched Mizzou team, Labissiere scored 12 points and swatted 5 shots, a new career high.

  • Picked by the media to the preseason All-SEC first team, Labissiere started the first 11 games of the season, but has come off the bench since late December. The 6-11 freshman played single-digit minutes in recent league games against Alabama, Auburn and Vanderbilt.

Comments

Kristen Downing 3 years, 1 month ago

Yikes, they're getting coached up and we've gone backwards.

Robert Brock 3 years, 1 month ago

The key: what kind of night Frank Mason has.

Dustin Peterson 3 years, 1 month ago

I agree, but specifically, on defense. If Ulis is allowed to dribble drive at will, we'll get blown out in our own building. In fact, I think the key for everyone on defense tonight is to stay inside the arc. There is no one on the UK team that shoots 3 pointers as efficiently as Poythress and Lee shoot 2s. If either of those guys are allowed to catch the ball in a position to score all night, it's lights out. Kentucky doesn't shoot well from deep. Stay in tight.

Kent Richardson 3 years, 1 month ago

If UK is truly on an upswing and we are showing a down swing then it may not be a good result. This one is really hard to call. Bill will be red as a beet if we are on the receiving end of beat down. I don't see that happening but I wouldn't be aghast either. I keep thinking around 80-70 UK. I did pick the ISU scscore pretty close so I am full of myself and sad too. Lol.

I think if we get stomped the players decision as to who they are comfortable playing with comes to a screeching halt. Loss at OSU, okay bad. Loss at ISU, okay bad. Loss at home to UK, not f'ing okay, it really is bad.

Jay Scott 3 years, 1 month ago

The matchups are amazingly similar. Similar size and quickness. Similar but not identical skills.

What they lack is the raw number of players that can contribute and the personnel to guard Svi and Greene. Should be fun.

Vegas has Kansas as a six point fave.

Kristen Downing 3 years, 1 month ago

Blocking our shots will be a problem (again) if they drive willy nilly without a plan. I think the taller guards need to drive.

DaNeille Dani Davis 3 years, 1 month ago

"This is Kansas Basketball!" https://youtu.be/vnYp-cM1XV0 Just a little something to get you going.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.