Kentucky vs. Kansas: Previewing Tonight’s Champions Classic Battle

Posted by Kory Carpenter & David Changas on November 18th, 2014

When it was introduced in 2011, the Champions Classic quickly rose to become the crown jewel of ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon. The event was such a success that last November, all four teams – Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State – renewed the deal without hesitation. Tonight marks the start of the second rotation, and the nightcap will pit the two winningest college hoops programs of all-time (4,269 wins, at last count) against each other. Big 12 microsite writer Kory Carpenter (@Kory_Carpenter) and SEC microsite writer David Changas (@dchangas) took some time to preview the matchup.

Kory Carpenter: Few coaches have a shared history like Bill Self and John Calipari. Each began his career as a Larry Brown disciple at Kansas in the 1980s, and they were famously reunited over 20 years later in the 2008 National Championship game, with Self (thanks to Mario Chalmers) taking the first championship match-up between the two. Calipari got even with Self four years later (thanks to Anthony Davis), beating Self and Kansas in the 2012 National Championship game. Aside from Coach K at Duke, there is nobody in the country recruiting like these two; and, depending on whom you ask, they could easily be considered the two best coaches in the country. In the first year of the Champions Classic in 2011, Kentucky cruised to a 75-65 win behind 17 points from Doron Lamb and seven blocks from future NPOY Anthony Davis. Kentucky is favored once again, thanks to a roster that includes more McDonald’s All-Americans than Calipari might know what to do with. Blue-blood problems, indeed.

In a battle of coaching titans, John Calipari and Bill Self enter tonight's contest looking to one-up each other once again. (AP)

In a battle of coaching titans, John Calipari and Bill Self enter tonight’s contest looking to one-up each other once again. (AP)

Both teams should contend for the National Championship this season, but there are always questions this early, especially when facing teams of this caliber. The biggest concern for Kansas has to be post play, specifically rebounding. Kentucky starts three guys as tall or taller than anyone in Kansas’ starting lineup. Then you have 6’9” Marcus Lee, 6’10” Trey Lyles, and 7’0″ Dakari Johnson coming off the bench. The Jayhawks started a pair of 6’8” guys — Jamari Traylor and Perry Ellis — against UC Santa Barbara on Friday night. Beyond that, Landen Lucas (6’10”) and Cliff Alexander (6’8”) combined for 21 more minutes. As a result, UCSB forward Alan Williams had a field day against the Jayhawks’ frontcourt, finishing with 22 points and 11 rebounds on 50 percent shooting. But with all due respect to the future mid-major draft pick, he’s got nothing on players like Lyles, Johnson, and Towns. Kansas’ Ellis has struggled in the past against bigger, physical players, but that will have to change quickly if Kansas has a chance here, because Traylor doesn’t have a polished offensive game and Alexander looks like he will take some time to become a dominant player.

David Changas: At this point, Kentucky, like so many other teams, is trying to figure out its rotation. With so many new players joining an already talented group, it will take time for this group to mesh. The idea that two five-man squads could essentially “platoon” in and out of the lineup was unrealistic, and there is no reason to believe Calipari will stick with it against the Jayhawks. The Kentucky coach is used to playing with a much shorter bench, and the biggest question with his squad coming into this season was whether he could keep 10 players happy. Against, Kansas, the Wildcats will also need to do a better job in transition against the smaller, quicker Jayhawks, than they did against Buffalo. Kansas will want to get out and run as often as possible for easy baskets, rather than trying to grind out baskets in the half-court against Kentucky’s daunting front line. The Wildcats were held to only eight points in transition on Sunday, with none of those coming in the first half. If that happens again tonight, leading to a number of easy baskets, Kentucky could be in trouble.

KC: It won’t be easy, but if Kansas wins the game, guard play will likely be the reason. The Harrison twins and Tyler Ulis are as talented as any backcourt the Jayhawks will face all season, but there won’t be as much of a talent discrepancy like they will see in the paint. Freshman Kelly Oubre was a McDonald’s All-American along with sophomore Wayne Selden, who averaged 9.7 PPG last season. Freshman Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk spent the summer playing for the Ukrainian national team in the FIBA World Championships, averaging 16 PPG for the U-18 squad in the European Championships, and was a member of the World Select team at the Nike Hoops Summit. Freshman point guard Devonte Graham led the team with 14 points against UC Santa Barbara, and sophomore Frank Mason added 12 points of his own. The Jayhawks also bring sophomore Brannen Greene, a 6’7″ wing who might have the best outside shot on the team. Bill Self will have enough backcourt players to run at Kentucky in an attempt to wear out the Harrisons and Ulis. But similar to what Kentucky faces nearly every season, there is a concern that some of the freshman could struggle to adjust to the intensity of their first prime-time game at this level. If two or more Kansas guards come up with big games tonight, the Jayhawks could make the Wildcats’ size down low less of a factor.

DC: There are a couple of reasons why Kentucky is better positioned to win this early season clash of the titans. First, not only are the Wildcats more talented than the Jayhawks – heck, they’re more talented than everyone – but, for once, they also have legitimate experience, something Calipari isn’t accustomed to having so early in the season. Several players who keyed integral roles on the team’s run to last year’s National Championship game are back. His starting lineup has quite a bit more experience than Self’s, and the group of Harrisons, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and others should well-prepared for a November game of this magnitude. Second, Kentucky should also have a significant advantage on the interior, as few teams can match the Wildcats’ impressive stable of big men. In Kentucky’s first two games, the group has dominated the glass, outrebounding their opponents by an average of 25 per game and possessing the nation’s second-best offensive rebounding percentage (58.9%). Just throw the ball up there and go get it might be their mantra. Kansas’ Ellis and Traylor will need to have workmanlike efforts to keep Kentucky’s natural advantage on the glass in check. The Jayhawks did a good job with UC Santa Barbara in this regard, but Kentucky’s lineup presents a whole different challenge, one that could make the difference for the Wildcats.

KoryCarpenter (150 Posts)

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