After playing a number of exhibition games and the first two games of the regular season against easy competition, the Kentucky Wildcats will finally play a ranked opponent in the Champions Classic, albeit short-handed. It’s not just any ranked opponent. It is the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks.
Similar to Kentucky, Kansas returned four scholarship players from last season. However, three of those four players are starters. To fill their roster, the Jayhawks added four Top 100 recruits, highlighted by top-20 guard Elmarko Jackson, and four transfers, including three ranked in 247 Sports’ top-50 transfers.
Kentucky retook the lead for all-time wins this summer (2377 to 2370) thanks to the NCAA’s investigation into Kansas. Can the Cats increase that gap by one more game?
Let’s take a look at the anticipated matchup.
This Kentucky team has the personnel to be one of the best transition offense teams that John Calipari has coached. However, their transition defense will be tested against Kansas.
In their first two games of the season, the Jayhawks have put up back-to-back 99-point scoring performances, in large part due to their ability to play fast. Both of these games have been against sub-300 KenPom teams, allowing Kansas to dominate with their athleticism. But that athleticism gap won’t be there against Kentucky.
The best defense for the Wildcats is not to make mistakes. Even with a freshmen team, Kentucky has only turned the ball over nine times through two games this season, the second-best mark in the country. Kansas has also often turned long rebounds and blocked shots into run-outs, so it will be key to sprint back.
KU’s half-court offense hasn’t looked great early. If Kentucky can limit transition opportunities and force them to score in the half-court, the Wildcats have the offensive firepower to match and maybe even win.
Force Hunter Dickinson to Beat You
Kentucky’s lack of size and Hunter Dickinson is the biggest story of this game. Dickinson is one of the best big men in the country, and he is going to be a handful. He’s currently EvanMiya’s third-rated player in all of college basketball.
However, Dickinson has not been a player that can carry a team to win. Case in point, Michigan has barely gone over .500 in the last two seasons with Dickinson as the star. He is also a player who can get into his own head at times (ie against UNC and Penn State last season).
That said, Bill Self is one of the best X and O coaches in college basketball and will put Dickinson in better positions to succeed, attacking Kentucky’s lack of size. It is best to assume that he will get his 20 and 10.
One of those other players Kentucky can’t let go off is senior guard Kevin McCullar, who is not only an elite perimeter defender, but he’s also currently averaging 18.5 ppg on 61.9% shooting from the field and 41.7% from deep.
Dickinson is the only player with a 2+ inch size advantage that plays significant minutes. Kentucky’s defense, especially on-ball pressure, has looked good given this point of the season. The Wildcats should look into a strategy that was used against them a lot with Oscar Tshiebwe the last two seasons: Make the big man beat you.
Play Loose Under the Bright Lights
Kentucky hasn’t won a game in the Champions Classic since 2019 when Tyrese Maxey went off for 26 points against Michigan State. Most realize that without a healthy roster, it is going to be a difficult task to take down the No. 1 team in the country.
However, given the talent of this Kentucky roster, it should still be a competitive game. If the young Wildcats can push Kansas in their first real contest of the season, with three big pieces of the roster, that will still provide some confidence going forward.
A huge key for the Cats will not be affected by the bright lights of a nationally televised game against arguably the best team in America. We’ve seen this stage be too much for Kentucky players at times, be it freshmen (TyTy vs. Duke in 2021) or even upperclassmen (Reeves vs. Michigan State last year).
It would be easy for a team with so many young guys to underperform on such a big stage, as Kentucky is currently relying on five true freshmen in its eight-man rotation. They have to meet the challenge head-on, and it would certainly help if veterans Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell can carry a big workload on offense.
Play loose, and have fun.
Time/Date: Approximately 9:30 pm ET on Tuesday, November 14th, 2023
Location: United Center in Chicago, Illinois
TV Channel: ESPN
Online Stream: WatchESPN and the ESPN app.
Announcers: Dan Shulman, Jay Bilas, and Holly Rowe
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the UK radio network call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
replay: WatchESPN and SEC Network (check local listings).
Rosters: UK | KU
Stats to Know: UK | KU
KenPom: UK | KU
Odds: DraftKings Sportsbook has yet to release its spread for the matchup, but we will update this article as soon as they do. ESPN’s matchup predictor has the Wildcats as a decent underdog at 25.4%, giving them a 1 in 4 shot at the win. Bart Torvik has a little more confidence in the Cats, giving them a 34% chance. KenPom gives them a 35% chance of victory.
Predictions: Bart Torvik picks the Wildcats to lose in a close one, 75-71. Haslametrics is going with a 79-69 victory for the Jayhawks. KenPom went with a 75-71 win for Kansas. EvanMiya projects a 74-70 triumph for the Jayhawks.