Kentucky vs Kansas.
2,343 all time wins vs 2,340 all time wins.
8 national championships vs 3 national championships.
Blue blood vs blue blood.
There are many different ways to describe the historical relevance of these two rivals facing off, but the significance of this matchup for this season alone is at an all time high for the Cats.
Kentucky had fallen in a neutral court matchup to #9 Duke in the opening game of the season, and lost a true road game to #2 Auburn this past weekend. Neither of these losses are detrimental to our tournament resume at all. However, Kentucky is still searching for a top 10 win to potentially earn a 1 or 2 seed in the tournament, as well as gain the confidence to know we are capable of beating the best teams in the country.
A loss this weekend is absolutely not the end of the season for the Cats, nor would it be time to panic. But it will most likely cost us the opportunity at a top tournament seed, as well as drop our lead of most all time wins over Kansas to just 2.
We are used to seeing Kansas in the Champion's Classic, or even the National Championship game. However, this edition of the battle between the blue bloods will take place as a part of the SEC - Big 12 Challenge.
Kentucky has won each of their three last matchups in the SEC - Big 12 Challenge, including a pair of road wins over #7 West Virginia (2018) and #18 Texas Tech (2020), and a victory over #9 Kansas (2019) inside Rupp Arena. Last year's matchup with Texas was cancelled due to COVID.
Kansas will be coming into this game ranked #5 in the country, owning a 17-2 record. However, several of their last games have came down to a single possession.
Excluding their matchup against West Virginia, 4 of Kansas's past 5 matchups (Iowa State, Oklahoma, Kansas State, and Texas Tech) have been won by a combined total of 10 points, and none have been won individually by more than 3. While this shows they have not been overly dominant, it also shows that Kansas is among the best at getting it done down the stretch of close games.
If Kentucky can continue their recent elite performances while fully healthy, the Cats should absolutely have an opportunity to come out of one of the most hostile environments with a top 5 win. Here is how they can make that happen...
#1 - Do Not Let Ochai Agbaji Dominate:
Just in case the matchup of two of the top teams in the country doesn't excite you enough, it will also be a battle between two of the top candidates for National Player of the Year, Oscar Tshiebwe and Ochai Agbaji. While Oscar has primarily been recognized for his dominance on the glass and inside the paint, Agbaji has been one of the most elite scorers in the country.
Agbaji hasn't had less than 10 points all year, and also has scored 20+ points in 12 of his 19 games this season. This includes a career high 36 points against an elite defense in Texas Tech earlier this week.
Even more impressive, Agbaji has able to put up these insane scoring totals with top tier efficiency as well. He averages 21.3 points on only 14.9 field goal attempts per game, while shooting 52.7% from the field and 47% from behind the arc.
Given his season-long consistency of scoring, it would be unreasonable to say we need to "shut down" Agbaji, but preventing him from dominating is going to be crucial for the Cats. Given the lack of scoring threats on the rest of their roster, if we do not let Agbaji single handedly control this game, points will become very hard to come around for Kansas.
However, Kentucky is yet to show that they are capable of slowing down an elite scoring guard. We have seen large leads shrink down the stretch twice this season due to giving up 30+ point scoring performances from Scottie Pippen Jr of Vanderbilt and Iverson Molinar of Mississippi State.
TyTy Washington most likely returning from injury should be a huge boost for our perimeter defense. However, I think our best shot at slowing down Agbaji is Jacob Toppin. We have seen Calipari put Toppin on opposing guards in the past, primarily for the last few possessions of a close game. But I would put Toppin on Agbaji from the start, and hopefully not allow him to get into a rhythm at any point in the game.
If man-to-man isolation defense does not work, I would then consider double teaming Agbaji, even if it frees up some shooters for Kansas. Agbaji is more than capable of taking over a game if we let him. Do not let Agbaji beat you, and Kentucky will have a great chance of pulling away down the stretch.
#2 - Control the Paint:
David McCormack and Jalen Wilson returning to Kansas for another season was initially anticipated to form one of the more dominant frontcourts in the country. Both players averaged double digit scoring last year, and found their names on a handful of preseason award watch lists this summer. However, neither have really lived up to their preseason hype. While Kansas will have lots of success out on the perimeter, there is a huge advantage to be gained for Kentucky in the paint.
Oscar Tshiebwe will need another one of his 15 point and 15 rebound games that he seems to be putting up in his sleep. Keion Brooks will also have many opportunities to get to his mid-range jumper going, as well as get deep paint touches to get shots close to the rim.
Controlling the boards on both ends of the floor, establishing a low post presence on offense, and forcing Kansas scorers to settle for jump shots is the dominance in the paint needed for Kentucky to win this game.
#3 - Clutch Scoring:
As previously noted, this game very well can come down to a single possession. Kentucky can slow down Agbaji and control the paint for the first 38 minutes of the game and put ourselves in a great position to win. But if we cannot make big shots during the final 2 minutes, we ultimately might fall short.
We have seen TyTy Washington and Davion Mintz come up with key baskets down the stretch against Texas A&M, as well as Kellan Grady hitting back to back three pointers to pull away from Mississippi State.
But on the other hand, we missed a shot down 2 in the final seconds of our loss to Notre Dame, and also had a critical turnover down 1 in our loss to LSU.
In the brightest of lights, on the biggest of stages, Kentucky's stars are going to have to step up to make winning plays down the stretch, whether that be a go-ahead shot, a defensive stop, or a pair of free throws.
Of the three keys to winning, this is the both the most difficult and important one. But it is what must be done to both BEAT one of the best teams in the country, and BE one of the best teams in the country.
Game Notes and Prediction:
The primetime matchup between #12 Kentucky and #5 Kansas will take place on Saturday at 6:00 pm ET at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. If you are watching from the comfort of your home, the game will be nationally televised on ESPN.
It might be of note that Kansas is coming off of a double overtime game against #13 Texas Tech earlier this week, and has to face #23 Iowa State and #4 Baylor next week. No one ever overlooks a game against Kentucky, but it is common to see teams struggle in the middle of a stretch of games this difficult.
Also of note, it has yet to be formally announced whether TyTy Washington (ankle) will be able to play or not. However, Oscar Tshiebwe hinted after their game on Tuesday that he expects the freshman guard to return.
We have seen for Kellan Grady that when it rains, it pours. I predict that Grady takes confidence from his overtime performance against Mississippi State, and leads Kentucky with 20+ points in a narrow 81-79 victory over the Jayhawks. I also think Oscar sees another huge double-double, putting up 15+ points and rebounds, and establishing himself as the frontrunner for National Player of the Year.