Preview: Kansas at Kentucky

Jan 28, 2023 - 11:39 PM
Syndication: The Tennessean
I may start using this picture a lot | George Walker IV / / USA TODAY NETWORK

Remember two weeks ago? Kansas had eked out a win over Iowa State to start 5-0 in league play, and 16-1 overall. A one seed, perhaps the overall top seed, was a sure thing. In Lexington, Kentucky was coming off an embarrassing midweek home loss to South Carolina, which had national news writers actually suggesting that it was time for Calipari to go, as they dropped to 10-6. That same day though, two weeks ago, Kentucky went on the road to beat Tennessee, and pick up a win over a top team they desperately needed. Since that day two weeks ago, things have changed dramatically for both teams.

Kentucky used that Tennessee win to right their ship. They’ve won all three games since and climbed more than 20 spots in KenPom’s rankings. They appear easily headed to the tournament barring a collapse down the stretch, and they’re playing fantastic basketball on both sides of the court. Kansas, on the other hand, hasn’t won a game since that win over Cyclones, falling in OT to K-State, getting drubbed at home by TCU, and losing by six to Baylor. These teams are in wildly different places right now, with one seemingly putting everything together, and the other dealing with their first three game losing streak in 10 years.

Kentucky is now ranked 32nd in KenPom while Kansas sits at 11th, so on paper this should be a competitive game, with the better team going on the road. But Kansas has looked especially flawed of late, where even if some things improve, other aspects of the game fall apart. Dajuan Harris hasn’t looked right since getting a knock in the K-State loss. Kevin McCullar has been turning the ball over far too much, while struggling to hit shots. Gradey Dick looked better against Baylor, but was 3-16 from three in the two games prior. Jalen Wilson has gone beast mode to help make up for the lack of production elsewhere, but it just hasn’t been enough. For Kentucky, Oscar Tshiebwe has generally been fantastic, with his highlight being a 37 point, 24 rebound domination of Georgia 11 days ago. Point guard Sahvir Wheeler has seen his role diminished due to a shoulder injury, while Cason Wallace and CJ Fredrick have stepped up in the backcourt. Jacob Toppin, younger brother of the NBA’s Obi Toppin, has had three straight solid games after a mercurial start to the year. These two teams could have just been on different sides of lady luck over the last two weeks, or they could be starting the show their true colors.

In terms of what to expect from Kentucky, the one constant is Tshiebwe. The reigning consensus NPOY has been a double double machine, probably the best overall rebounder in college basketball, and keeping his offensive game within the confines of his natural abilities, with a low turnover rate and FG% of 58%, maintaining a 124.7 ORtg for the year. But this is Kentucky, so there are plenty of other weapons. Antonio Reeves has hit 40% of his 116 threes, while Cason Wallace is hitting 40% of his 91 tries. This Kentucky team shoots threes very well, so we’ll all be hoping they inexplicably continue not to shoot many of them. Toppin hasn’t been especially efficient this year, but he’s an outstanding athlete with the potential to go off at any time. And while Wheeler has battled injury during Kentucky’s recent resurgence, he’s still a fantastic playmaker with an assist rate over 31% and has to be taken seriously as a player who can still hurt you. Kentucky is a much better offensive squad than defensive (KenPom ranks them 22nd and 58th on each respective side of the court), and they do it with a combination of three point shooting, dominance on the offensive glass, and generally taking care of the ball. They don’t get to the free throw line much, and don’t shoot very well when they get there, so for the most part they feast on assisted good shots. Defensively they rebound well and do a decent job of holding opponents to poor two point shooting performances, but they don’t force many turnovers and aren’t really elite in any individual category.


It’s hard not to be down on the Jayhawks right now, and a trip to Lexington to face a Kentucky team that seems to finally be firing on all cylinders is hardly the cure for a rough stretch. Four straight losses under Bill Self seems like an unfathomable thing to consider, but that’s what is on the line tonight. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that KJ Adams is going to lock Tshiebwe down and keep him off the glass, so Kentucky may get a lot of second chance scoring opportunities, while making it tough for Kansas to grab many of their own misses. Kentucky is also a team that will force Kansas to execute switches and go over the top of screens effectively, and that hasn’t been a strong point in KU’s defensive game this year. Harris’ slump, whether related to an injury or just a midseason rough patch, has really limited KU’s ceiling offensively, with McCullar still offering very little on that end of the court, and KJ Adams’ run of double digit scoring games ending with back-to-back 4 point performances. I can’t find a lens through which I can look at this game and see Kansas winning. For appearances’ sake, I just hope it isn’t the blowout it has the potential to be.

Kentucky 79, Kansas 67

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