Kansas versus Kentucky.
Just the mere mention of a meeting between college basketball’s two most successful blue blood programs brings out the spotlight and captures the attention of hoops fans across the country.
But Saturday’s 5:15 p.m. tip-off between No. 2 Kansas and No. 4 Kentucky at Rupp Arena in the fourth annual SEC/Big 12 Challenge has a much different look and feel today than it did when the schedules came out and Jayhawks and Wildcats everywhere circled the date on their calendars.
While both teams have won at the rate they are accustomed to winning — Kansas is 18-2 and has 2,204 all-time wins and Kentucky sits at 17-3 with 2,222 all-time victories — injuries and suspensions severely have cut into Kansas’ depth, leaving the Jayhawks as a seven-point underdog against Kentucky’s typically deep roster of NBA talent.
Both teams are coming off of tough, road losses to conference foes earlier this week, and the ability to step outside of conference play for one star-studded night on the sport’s biggest stage offers both teams an opportunity to play loose and let ’er rip.
Given the off-the-court issues that have plagued the Jayhawks in the days following their first loss since the season opener, Kansas coach Bill Self said this week that he was unsure of what Tuesday’s loss at West Virginia did to his team’s psyche.
“I'm a little bit uncertain of how we'll respond, to be quite candid,” Self said. “I don't know that I have an answer for that. I know that our guys will be excited to play. It's going to be a situation that guys are going to have to use the basketball court as a way to kind of bond together rather than to be talked about off it.”
That was exactly the picture that senior forward Landen Lucas painted of a Kansas team that, suddenly, is down to a six-man rotation, with seldom-used reserves Mitch Lightfoot and Dwight Coleby potentially picking up more minutes.
“I don’t think so, no,” said Lucas when asked if his team was overly distracted. “We’re very close as a team and, if anything, (the week full of distractions) brought us closer together. We know that we have to be close going into a tough environment. We’re looking at everything to just bring us together and move on and get ready for Kentucky.”
While the specifics of the match-up — talented guards against talented guards, young big man Bam Adebayo vs. the savvy veteran Lucas, Self vs. UK’s John Calipari — have been outlined and the game plan put in place, Lucas said one overlooked aspect of Saturday’s showdown was the opportunity it provides the Jayhawks to prepare for the not-too-distant future.
“We welcome it,” said Lucas of facing No. 4 Kentucky four days after falling at No. 18 West Virginia and four days before facing No. 5 Baylor. “It’s fun for us, and this quick turnaround and having to get ready for different teams in a short amount of time is good practice for us once we come to the (NCAA) tournament. Because if you’re in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight or something, you’ve got a couple of days to get ready for very good teams and we’ve gotta be ready to do that.”
While he no doubt is looking forward to seeing his team get tested by one of the best and most talented teams in the country, Self reiterated that he never has particularly liked timing of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
“I think it’s good for TV,” Self said recently. “Because there’s not one coach that’s playing on Saturday out of the SEC or the Big 12 who would say it’s a well scheduled game.”
Self’s preference is for the showcase be played in early- to mid-December. But, given college football’s bowl schedule, he acknowledged that he knew that was not possible.
Having said that, even Self demonstrated a clear understanding of what a Kansas-Kentucky clash means to college basketball and those who follow it.
“I think every coach in our league or in their league would tell you that the games aren't as important as the league games,” Self said. “But it certainly gives your league a chance to be showcased, talked about, bring exposure to it, and then of course play a high-level team that's out of your league.
“I think it's important that we do well, but I'm not sure it means as much to the coaches as what it may mean to the people that are watching. But whenever you get Kentucky and Kansas together, obviously it'll take center stage and will mean a lot to the players. They practice beginning in October (and) one of the games on the calendar that's circled is this game. So certainly it's a big deal to them.”