The highlight of this weekend’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge figures to be the blue-blood showdown between the No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks and the No. 12 Kentucky Wildcats. These two programs are no stranger to one another, meeting seven times in the last decade. Naturally, both teams fancy themselves as national championship contenders this year.
At 16-4 overall and 6-2 in SEC play, the Wildcats look like a team with Final Four potential. Despite falling short against Auburn last week, the Cats have five of their last six games and will bring a fair amount of momentum into Allen Fieldhouse. It’s also worth noting that Kentucky is 2-3 in true road games this season, so leaving Rupp Arena hasn’t come easy to the Wildcats this season.
Other than playing on the road, Kentucky’s biggest question mark heading into this game involves freshman TyTy Washington. The team’s second-leading scorer got hurt against Auburn last weekend and didn’t play against Mississippi State midweek, so his status for Saturday is in question. The silver lining is that the Cats should have the depth to deal with Washington’s absence. Diminutive point guard Sahvir Wheeler is the team leader in assists and scored 15 points in the win over Mississippi State while taking on a bigger role. Davion Mintz had just four points against MSU but has enough experience to play a bigger role in Washington’s absence. The Cats also have grad transfer Kellan Grady, who is averaging 12.1 points per game and shoots 43% from the perimeter, giving Kentucky an elite shooter who can help pick up the slack if Washington can’t play.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats have one of the premier big men in the country in Oscar Tshiebwe. The West Virginia transfer is leading the Wildcats with 16.3 points and 15.2 rebounds per game. He also makes an impact at the defensive end, leading Kentucky in both blocks and steals. Tshiebwe is almost guaranteed to get a double-double every time he steps on the floor. However, production from the rest of the Kentucky frontcourt can be inconsistent. Keion Brooks has had some ups and downs despite averaging 10.2 points per game. He could also be better on the boards, averaging just 4.4 rebounds per game. Plus, the Wildcats aren’t getting a ton of production from Jacob Toppin and freshman Daimion Collins these days, putting a little extra pressure on Tshiebwe and Brooks.
The Jayhawks head into this game fresh off a double-overtime win over Texas Tech. Kansas has now won five straight games and sits atop the Big 12 standings at 6-1 in league play and 17-2 overall. Of course, four of their five wins during the team’s current winning streak have come by three points or less, so Kansas isn’t blowing teams away but is finding ways to win close games.
Leading the charge for the Jayhawks lately has been the frontcourt tandem of Jalen Wilson and David McCormack. Neither player got off to a good start this season but each has started to turn things around. Wilson is averaging 16 points and 9.3 rebounds over his last four games, which is a huge improvement on his season averages of 8.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Likewise, McCormack has had some big games lately, scoring double figures in three of his last four games and registering two double-doubles over that stretch. If those two are playing well, they are as good as any forward tandem in the country.
Of course, Kansas’ best player this season has been Ochai Agbaji, who is averaging 21.3 points per game while shooting 47% from the perimeter. He scored 37 points in the win over Texas Tech earlier this week and has scored at least 20 points in five of his last six games, so there aren’t many players in the country hotter than Agbaji right now. Christian Braun is also having a breakout season, going from complementary player last season to someone who is averaging 15.3 points per game on the season. The only caveats for Kansas are depth and point guard play. Remy Martin has scored four points or less in four straight games and his assist numbers have declined since early in the season. Sophomore Dajuan Harris is starting to see more time at point guard, but he is not yet a consistent scorer, leaving a huge drop-off for the Jayhawks after Agbaji, Braun, Wilson, and McCormack.
Winning on the road, especially if they don’t have Washington, won’t be easy for Kentucky. While they have Tshiebwe, the Jayhawks can counter with two forwards who are coming on strong lately. The Wildcats could also struggle to contain a red-hot Ogbaji. But the Jayhawks are lacking depth beyond their four key players, leaving the door ajar for Kentucky to pull off the road win.
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