From one perspective, tonight's game against Kentucky at Allen Fieldhouse doesn't mean a whole lot to either team. Bracket Matrix currently shows Kansas as a 1 seed, and Kentucky a 4 seed. A loss will not send either team tumbling as March nears, especially given the reputation of the two teams involved. And as a non-conference game, neither the Big 12 or SEC race will be impacted. Still, any time two heavyweights in the sport meet up, on a Saturday with no football distractions, it's going to garner a lot of attention. ESPN's GameDay is on hand in Lawrence, and you can bet that both teams will want to put on a show on national television.
Though Kentucky's bracketology standing is lower, KenPom thinks more highly of them than the Jayhawks, ranking them 7th to KU's 9th. Kentucky's ratings on each side of the court also somewhat mirror KU's, with a better offense (4th) than defense (25th). Kansas is more extreme, ranking 3rd and 51st, respectively. Kentucky will test the Jayhawks on the boards, being the best offensive rebounding team in the country, and 11th best on the defensive side. They excel inside the arc, but are slightly above average from behind it as well, all while limiting turnovers.
Defensively, they don't force many turnovers, but opponents don't make many of their shots on them either. And they do this without fouling. Throw in a decent amount of size and a ton of athleticism, and in short, this is not an easy team to play against.
Players to Watch
Oscar Tshiebwe, junior center
Fans will remember Tshiebwe from his days at West Virginia, where his talent was apparent, but things just didn't work out between him and Bob Huggins. He's shining at Kentucky, so much so that he's likely to be in strong consideration for the Wooden Award. He's the reason for UK's shocking rebounding numbers, ranking 2nd nationally in offensive rebounding (McCormack is 1st) and 1st in defensive rebounding. His shots come almost exclusively in the paint, and he's hitting 61.5% of them overall. He's also a solid rim protector and gets a number of steals as well. Simply put, he's going to be a terror, and unless he gets into foul trouble, McCormack will need to shine to keep him from dominating in the paint on both ends of the court.
TyTy Washington, freshman guard
Washington was a 5 star recruit who had Kansas listed among his finalists. He's certainly lived up to the hype, with excellent court vision, ability to the get to the rim, and a solid three point shot, all while limiting turnovers. He did miss Kentucky's game this week against Mississippi State though, and he's considered questionable tonight with an ankle injury.
Sahvir Wheeler, junior point guard
This 5'9 Georgia transfer seemed like a noteworthy inclusion, since Kansas just had a rough time defending a couple of undersized guards in Manhattan. Wheeler is top 20 nationally in assist rate, and while he neither shoots threes well or often, he is capable of scoring pretty efficiently by making a wild 73% of his shot attempts at the rim (per hoop math). About 37% of his shots are two point jumpers though, and he hits just 27% of those, so expect Self to try and make the midrange look as enticing as possible when Wheeler has the ball.
The Jayhawks are a 5 point favorite, and a decent chunk of those 5 points are likely made up of the Allen Fieldhouse effect, as sites like KenPom and Torvik see these two as virtual equals. Another factor could be a few Kentucky players dealing with injury,with Washington being the most notable. That makes predicting this game a bit tough, since Washington has been great this season and they had a close call at home without him.
I'll not only go against Kansas on the spread, but for the first time this year I'll make an official prediction against the Jayhawks outright. I think Kentucky's athleticism will cause problems for this Kansas team, and I think Tshiebwe could be poised to have a monster game against the inconsistent David McCormack. Kentucky 78, Kansas 74
Record ATS: 11-8