Could Kansas move past Kentucky as college basketball's all-time win king this season?
Kansas basketball fans are constantly measuring the Jayhawks against the Kentucky Wildcats, KU’s blue blood rivals from the South.
So it should come as no surprise that there’s a little extra excitement surrounding the comparison this season.
Sure, the Jayhawks knocked off Kentucky at the Champions Classic earlier this month, winning at least another year’s worth of bragging rights in head-to-head battles with John Calipari’s club.
But that was just the start.
While third-ranked Kansas has raced out to an 8-1 start and is riding an eight-game winning streak into Big 12 play in January, the Wildcats have limped out to a 1-6 start and appear to be headed toward a season to forget.
While that won’t deliver any kind of banner and is not likely to impact KU’s ultimate goal of winning a national title, the journey for these two teams through the 2020-21 season is still worth tracking because of where each sits on the all-time college basketball wins list.
When the season began, KU was second to Kentucky in all-time college basketball wins by 16 total victories — 2,318 for UK to 2,302 for KU.
The gap is down to single digits today (2,319 to 2,310), which has Kansas fans buzzing about potentially overtaking Kentucky for the top spot by season’s end.
I don’t know how many emails or Twitter messages I’ve received about the potential for KU to move into first place from people who were making sure that I, too, was tracking the progress. But it’s been a lot.
So let’s jump into the schedules a little to see if we can make an educated guess on where things might stand by season’s end.
The Jayhawks have 17 regular season games remaining on their schedule and the Wildcats have 18 games remaining on theirs.
We’ve written, and you’ve surely read, plenty about how the COVID-19 pandemic is a constant threat to playing a full schedule. So it’s possible that some of those games for both teams might not happen. But for this exercise, we’ll assume they’ll play them all.
That leaves whatever postseason fate awaits both teams. And it’s important to remember here that even if Kentucky does not make the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats could still rack up wins in the NIT or CBI postseason events, if those are played as normal this season.
A win is a win, no matter where it comes.
So let’s give KU three games in the Big 12 tournament and Kentucky two in the SEC tourney. Games, not necessarily wins. That evens out the total at 20 apiece heading into March Madness.
That’s where KU could make up some serious ground if Kentucky does not make the Big Dance, is not invited to play in another event or if those events simply do not happen because of the pandemic.
With all of that being said, KU still has a heck of a climb to move into the No. 1 spot by season’s end. Erasing a nine-game deficit in 20-25 games will take a season similar to last year’s for the Jayhawks and, more importantly, continued misery for the Wildcats.
Kentucky is going to get better eventually. And Calipari’s club is going to face weaker competition most of the rest of the way, as well. The SEC is currently ranked by RealTimeRPI.com as the nation’s fifth best conference, just barely ahead of the Big East and ACC. The Big 12, meanwhile, is ranked second.
Of the 18 regular season games still on Kentucky’s schedule, nine of them are against KenPom Top 50 programs, while four are 80th or worse.
KU’s remaining 17-game slate includes 11 games against the KenPom Top 50 and four against teams that currently sit 80th or worse.
KenPom currently has Kansas finishing the regular season at 19-7, which would make the Jayhawks 11-6 over their final 17 regular season games.
KenPom currently has Kentucky finishing the regular season at 10-15, which would make the Wildcats’ 9-9 over their final 18 games.
Those numbers would only help Kansas close the gap by two more wins on the all-time total.
KenPom’s projections currently have UK winning six one-possession games and also losing six one-possession games, so the number of total wins could move a little either way. But if he misses on a couple of the projected wins, he might also miss on a couple of the projected losses.
Kansas also could do better than 11-6 over its final 17 games, but even KU going 14-3 would only allow KU to close the gap by five wins from this point on, therein cutting the gap at the top to four.
Postseason play could be a factor, but only if the Jayhawks make a fairly deep run — we’re talking Big 12 title game and Sweet 16 at least.
If the Jayhawks get to the Final Four, they could be college basketball’s win king by the end of the season. Anything shy of that, however, might make it tough.
Regardless of how the rest of this season plays out, though, it’s clear that KU will close the gap from the 16-win deficit it faced heading into the season, and that could set the Jayhawks up to make a real run at the top during the 2021-22 season.
Don’t worry, though. Whatever happens, I will be keeping an eye on it. As will most of you, I’m sure.
Here’s a quick look at the season-by-season breakdown of Kansas and Kentucky victories since Self took the reins in Lawrence.
2003-04: UK +3 (27-24)
2004-05: UK +5 (28-23)
2005-06: KU +4 (25-22)
2006-07: KU +11 (33-22)
2007-08: KU +19 (37-18)
2008-09: KU +5 (27-22)
2009-10: UK +2 (35-33)
2010-11: KU +6 (35-29)
2011-12: UK +6 (38-32)
2012-13: KU +10 (31-21)
2013-14: UK +4 (29-25)
2014-15: UK +11 (38-27)
2015-16: KU +6 (33-27)
2016-17: UK +1 (32-31)
2017-18: KU +5 (31-26)
2018-19: UK +4 (30-26)
2019-20: KU +3 (28-25)
2020-21: KU +7 (8-1 so far)
Total: Kansas +39 (509-470 and counting...)