To preview tomorrow's long-awaited matchup with Kentucky, we reached out to sister site A Sea of Blue to get their thoughts on some topics heading into the contest. Jason Marcum was kind enough to answer my questions. Check out my responses to their questions here.
1) Kentucky has had some rough losses that led to steep drops in the rankings. On the flip side, they've also beaten Louisville, Duke and Vanderbilt, and are sitting at 16-4 overall. Can you gauge overall how Kentucky fans view the team at this point? Is there a lot of concern over losing to a team like Auburn, or were some bumps in the road expected given the team's youth?
This is just a young team that's had erratic levels of play this season, but has also been very soft at times, particularly in the paint. These youngsters just didn't show enough fight and desire to win road games early on, even again bad teams that will struggle just to make the NIT.
The good news is they've slowly gotten better as the season wore on, and that's come to a head during their three-game winning streak. I would say the Vandy win was most impressive because they were playing as good as they have all season, including when Kansas beat them in a back-and-forth affair, and UK still dominated them.
Before this winning streak, few around here thought UK stood a chance at Kansas and this would likely end in a blowout. Now with the Cats finding their groove and KU struggling a bit, there's renewed excitement and belief this team can beat the Jayhawks and contend for a spot in the Final Four.
2) We've grown accustomed to Kentucky's roster being filled with household names in recent years. While this year's team certainly has its share of highly sought-after recruits, it's not loaded with lottery picks like it was the last couple of years. Who are the best players on this year's team, and are there any young guys who haven't lived up to their billing?
There's no doubt UK's best player has been point guard Tyler Ulis. He's simply one of the few guards in college basketball hat can do it all. Passing, scoring, rebounding and defense are all areas he's thrived at, depending on what's been needed of him. Ulis is a major pest on defense and is why most backcourts finish with stat lines like what Vandy, Mizzou and Arkansas had (starting backcourts were combined 21-of-73 shooting for 28.8%).
Ulis is also averaging 20.6 points and 6.2 assists over his last five games as he's really become the best player on this team and one of the best guards in college. You just won't find many, if any players who dominate both ends of the court like Ulis does. He may not do any one thing elite, but his overall game makes him an elite player.
Skal Labissiere was the freshman phenom expected to become a household name, but has been a major disappointment this season. He often looks like he's never played basketball against anyone other than someone you'd find in a church league. Whether it's a top-25 team like Louisville or a bottom-feeder like Illinois State, Skal just hasn't been able to hold his own in the paint, and that's really hurt UK this season as it was clear they built a lot of their offense around him over the summer.
But he's getting better, and the team in general has shown more fight and intensity over the past few weeks. That's why they looked so good during their three-game winning streak.
Junior forward Derek Willis is also starting to emerge as a legitimate stretch 4 who can do a little bit of everything. Against Missouri and for the third time in four games, Willis scored in double digits with a career-high 18 points to go with 12 boards and two blocks. UK is 3-0 with him in the starting lineup after he spent most of his first 2.5 years warming the bench, but had slowly gotten more and more playing time as this season wore on.
But having good games against Auburn, Arkansas, Vandy and Mizzou is far different than playing at Kansas. It will be interesting to see if he plays well on a big stage, of if he's just someone who can look good against bad teams.
3) Kansas fans still have nightmares about last year's game between these two teams, in which the Jayhawks managed just 40 points while shooting under 20%. Certainly the UK defense has taken a step back from last year, but this team is still long and blocks a lot of shots. Is this year's Kentucky team equipped to put in another stifling defensive effort?
Yes and no. As mentioned above Ulis and the backout have really been stifling teams at times this season.That really plays into UK's hand this weekend as Kansas has five of their top scorers coming from the backcourt.
However, their interior defense has been far too easy to score on at times as well, and I just can't see them holding KU to less than 65 points.
KU gets enough scoring from Perry Ellis that I think he can carry the Jayhawks' offense vs UK, and the guards will do just enough to make this a game that gets into the 60s and even 70s.
I will say that Willis' emergence may be key in how well Ellis plays. He too is more of a stretch 4 that can really spread defenses out, and while Willis isn't a strong defender, he is more agile and quick than other bigs like Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee.
I won't be surprised if Willis is tasked with guarding Ellis and holds his own against him. In that same breath, I won't be surprised if Ellis takes Willis to school and has a big night. This goes back to the point of Willis still being an unknown commodity when it comes to a big-stage game like this.
4) Is there any irritation amongst Kentucky fans about having to travel to Allen Fieldhouse in the middle of their conference schedule? Or is this a pleasant change of competitive pace from blasting teams like Missouri, Alabama and Mississippi State?
'Meh' is how I can best describe it. Again, most thought this would be a no-contest blowout just two weeks ago, and now UK fans are excited about it and getting to face a team that's easily better than anyone in the SEC.
I think UK fans are more annoyed every March going into the NCAA Tournament without having played a strong team like Kansas since November/December, so getting a shot at a Final Four contender somewhat close to March actually feels a bit relieving.
5) Care to offer a prediction for the game? Can this year's Kentucky team win at Allen Fieldhouse?
They certainly 'can' win there, but only in the sense that Kansas is playing bad right now and UK is playing their best ball of the season. I've seen Kansas enough this year that I'm confident UK has no shot at winning there if the Jayhawks are at their best.
That said, KU not only needs this game because of their recent skid, but badly wants revenge for last year's debacle. I do think this will be a close game that UK stays within striking distance for much of the night, but KU ultimately runs away with a 73-65 win.