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Champions Classic Preview: Kansas and Kentucky Square Off

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Champions Classic begins its second go around as we get back to the same matchups as the first edition: Duke will take on Michigan State, and Kansas and Kentucky meet in the nightcap.

Though Kentucky was an 8 seed last year, they were ranked 1st in the preseason and currently sit 3rd in the Pomeroy Ratings. Kansas, despite losing two top 3 draft picks, sit 4th in KenPom.

It looks like a fairly even matchup, with 7 total players in DraftExpress's top 30 prospects ranking (and an 8th, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, 14th in their 2016 mock draft).

Kentucky is favored by anywhere between 3 and 4 points, and KenPom gives them about a 60% chance to win tonight. Still, they're definitely beatable, as illustrated by the first half of their game against Buffalo.


The best thing for Kansas would be for the Harrison twins to play as much as possible. Rated as top 10 recruits last year, both struggled last season, with each player having an eFG under 50% and turnover rates nearly identical to their assist rates. Their profiles got boosted by their NCAA tournament play but that was due to a couple reasons: potentially fluky three point shooting and getting to play against smaller guards. Aaron Harrison shot just 35.6% from three during the season, including his run in the NCAA tournament, but was 15-30 in the NCAA tournament. They also struggled all season against bigger guards, but got to go up against the likes of Fred Van Vleet and Chris Jones in the NCAA tournament.

The real star of the backcourt looks to be Freshman Tyler Ulis. At 5'9", he'll probably have issues defensively and getting clean looks once Kentucky plays legitimate teams, but he has a 36% assist rate so far and has made 7 of his 14 threes. I would assume he will be on Mason whenever they're both in the game, but if Kansas ever finds Ulis guarding either Graham or Selden I imagine they will march down to the post and try to pick up a couple fouls on UK's best guard.


Alex Poythress is another player who Kentucky hopefully will play as often as possible. A former top recruit, Poythress had his best season on Kentucky's NIT team and then inexplicably came back to school rather than becoming a first round pick in the NBA Draft. It was probably a bad move, as he struggled last season, playing fewer than 20 minutes per game, and looks to be headed for another year of struggles. He's got great measurables, but he doesn't stretch the floor and has turned it over a lot this year (small sample size warning).

Devin Booker is supposed to be the guy to stretch out the defense, but so far is 0-5 from three on the year. Obviously, as we've seen with Svi, percentages mean basically nothing. Svi is actually a decent comparison for Booker, as neither guy has a great wingspan or leaping ability, but both are potentially great shooters.

I'm putting Karl Towns here even though he's 6'11" because I think Kentucky can and will use him all over the court. He has rough numbers so far this year (other than rebounding) but he's gotten stronger over the last couple years and can bang inside a bit in addition to being able to handle the ball on the perimeter. He can score in a variety of ways, and with both hands. He's had some problems with foul trouble in the past, and that's been the case this year as well, so hopefully Kansas can take advantage of that.


Kentucky has an impressive collection of bigs, but lacks one who is truly the whole package. Dakari Johnson is probably their best offensive option down low, as he shot 57% last season. That's down about 10 percent this year, though that's likely just sample size. He was one of the better offensive rebounders last year as well, and might have added some defense this year, with a 13% block percentage. I think that's also a bit of a mirage, though, as he's not a great leaper and wasn't a good defender at all last season.

Willie Cauley Stein is their best post defender and rim protector, but offensively he remains limited, even if his percentages are great. He really can't score outside of dunks and alley-oops but he's great defensively and will be a pleyr to avoid tonight.

Trey Lyles looks great so far and is one of the more skilled big men around. He's not a great rim protector, and looks to probably be the worst rebounder on Kentucky's front line.

All Marcus Lee does is crash the offensive glass and dunk; hope he plays a lot (now watch him put up 25 and 10)

5 Keys

1. Defensive rebounding - Kentucky is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, in part because they can throw big men at you in waves and have wings who can rebound, but they also have played Buffalo, who is extremely small, and Grand Canyon, who is extremely terrible, so we'll see. Landen Lucas has been a rebounding machine so far in his career, Cliff Alexander looks like a great rebounder, and I like Oubre's potential on the wings. They'll likely not win the rebounding battle tonight, but if it's close that's a huge edge for Kansas

2. Limiting shots at the rim - Kentucky has taken almost half of its shots at the rim so far this year, but are shooting horribly from midrange and beyond the arc. They weren't great there last year either, and two of their best midrange shooters (James Young and Julius Randle) are gone, so being able to keep Kentucky from getting to the rim (or throwing lobs) is a huge key.

3. Three point shooting - Kansas will likely see some zone, and won't want to attack WCS too much, but should see quite a few open looks beyond the arc. They struggled from three last year and shot just 20% last game, though for a few reasons (mostly because of Svi) I think that will improve. Hopefully it does quickly.

4. Turnovers - Kansas turned it over on 22.6% of their possessions on Friday. With the other struggles they had offensively that needs to come down. Quickly.

5. Harrison twins - Seriously. Root for them to play a lot.

I think Kentucky will win this one by 10ish points (depending on how late game foul shooting goes) but a lot of that is because of the experience they have coming back relative to Kansas. Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre aren't there yet, and the guys don't know the offense very well. The good news is, though, that whatever gap there might be between the two teams, this is the largest it will be all season.