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Champions Classic Preview: Kentucky

Chicago, here we come!

Utah Valley v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This may be the best iteration of the Champions Classic yet. Duke and Michigan State sit top 2 in the polls, and all four of these teams should be contenders if not favorites to get to the Final Four by March.

As is normally the case with Kentucky, the public at large doesn’t know a lot about them thanks to their annual roster turnover. Because this recruiting class, other than the top 5 or so, is considered a bit down compared to other years, I don’t know a lot about them either. So this should be fun.

Per usual, the Wildcats have a lot of long, rangy athletes, and have had some trouble making outside shots and defending their assignments. They struggled in the first half against Utah Valley, and almost lost to a Vermont team that could knock on the door of the KenPom top 50 by the time this season is over.

Atypically for a Calipari team, Kentucky hasn’t been great defensively, despite their potential on that end. Teams are attempting a ton of open threes against them, and also shooting over 50 percent on twos against them. They gave up more than a point per possession to Vermont, and right around .9 against Utah Valley.

Offensively, Kentucky has stayed away from a lot of freshman mistakes (turning it over on 17.4 percent of their possessions); they just don’t have anyone who can make a shot. Kentucky is taking fewer than 20 percent of their shots from deep, and they are shooting just 33 percent from out there, and just 45 percent on twos. They are getting by with pure volume: the aforementioned lack of turnovers, and grabbing around 37 percent of their misses. All three of their big men have offensive rebounding rates over 10 percent.

Players to Watch

Hamidou Diallo, sophomore forward

Diallo joined Kentucky at midseason last year, then declared for the draft, then came back. His #1 tool is his athleticism. He almost broke Kenny Gregory’s vertical leap record at the combine. But he’s shown an impressive feel for the game so far through two games, with 6 assists and just 1 turnover. He’s also 3-6 from three, but his jumper needs a lot of work. As is the case with all these guys, Kansas will need to give him a lot of room to take those jumpers, rather than risk a blow by.

Wenyen Gabriel, sohomore forward

The best rebounder on the team, Gabriel also has been Kentucky’s best interior defender. More of an energy guy than a big body, KU will likely lean on Udoka Azubuike to keep him off the glass. He’s not a great offensive player, but nonetheless it would behoove Kansas to get him into foul trouble considering all the possessions he steals for the Wildcats.

Kevin Knox, freshman forward

Knox has struggled to find his footing thus far, going just 4-15 from two and 2-8 from three, but the 6-9 freshman has flashed a smooth inside out game. He doesn’t hit the offensive glass as much as his teammates, so whomever is guarding him will have to almost abandon boxing him out to hit the defensive glass.

Keys to the Game

  1. Transition Defense - Kentucky, as with most young teams, like to get as many easy transition points as possible. They are much worse in the half court, so if Kansas can keep their fast break points to a minimum that will go a long way towards winning.
  2. Threes - Given Kentucky’s size, Kansas should (and likely will) take a bunch of threes. As I’ve repeatedly stated, if they shoot at a high clip, they’ll win.
  3. Rebounding - Kentucky has been semi-susceptible to other teams hitting the offensive boards, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that Garrett, Vick, and Svi can worm their way in there and maybe grab a couple rebounds. On the flipside, Kansas will likely lose the defensive rebounding battle, but they need to keep Kentucky off the glass as much as possible. There’s no magic number, but if they can limit the Wildcats to grabbing around 33 percent of their misses, they should win.

The Pick

Kentucky matches up fairly well with Kansas due to its size. It’s not just that they have big bodies, it’s that their wings are all long and athletic. Kansas has some athletes of its own, and certainly better basketball players, but they have had a habit of forcing the issue a bit too much against teams like this and as a result getting frustrated on offense. They also don’t really have a guy who can take advantage of what could be a quickness advantage against Kentucky’s 4 man like Josh Jackson could last year (although Marcus Garrett is certainly no slouch).

But, with all the threes they took in the two exhibitions as well as the opener against Tennessee State, I’m going to choose to believe this is a new Bill Self. Kansas also certainly has the backcourt advantage. It could go either way, but I am going to say 79-75 Jayhawks.