Editor's note: The nonconference schedules have been released, which means it’s time to identify the biggest games of the season. There are some matchups that simply can’t be missed. Today: Kentucky at Kansas.
You can make your case for all of these other games, but this is the one to circle for the 2015-16 season. Not only because it’s two of the most storied programs, or that the two coaches aren’t exactly chummy, but also because this one takes place in arguably the most electric environment in the country – Allen Fieldhouse.
Kentucky is, well, Kentucky. The ‘Cats may not be quite as deep and powerful on paper as they were a year ago, but John Calipari’s team is still plenty capable of going to another Final Four. This may be Bill Self’s best chance to win it all since the Jayhawks cut down the nets in 2008 – when they happened to use Mario Chalmers’ 3-pointer to help knock off Calipari’s Memphis Tigers in the national title game.
These two coaches fight for recruits and national titles, these two fan bases fight over Midwest supremacy, and these two teams are as talented as anyone out there this season.
There’s not a nonconference game I’d rather be at this year than when Kentucky walks into Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 30.
Best reason to watch
Um, Kentucky vs. Kansas. Need I say more. These are two of the elite programs in the country – and also two teams who are expected to compete for a Final Four berth and a national title this season. Kentucky has gone to the Final Four in four of the past five seasons while Kansas has won 11 consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles.
John Calipari and Bill Self also have their share of history. Self’s Jayhawks beat Calipari in the national title game in 2008, and Calipari’s Wildcats returned the favor in the 2012 championship contest. A year ago, UK throttled and completely embarrassed Kansas, 72-40, in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis.
In addition to no shortage of talent on both sides, this one should be fairly evenly matched. Kentucky has plenty of NBA talent once again with Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray projected as likely lottery picks and Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Isaiah Briscoe and even Tyler Ulis on the radar of NBA executives. Kansas may not have quite as much NBA-caliber talent, but the Jayhawks possess a handful of guys the NBA has on its draft boards: Cheick Diallo, Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and freshman Carlton Bragg.
Players to watch
There are intriguing matchups just about everywhere. We’ll start with the backcourt where Kansas has a veteran guard duo of Selden and Frank Mason – and plenty of depth on the perimeter with Devonte' Graham, Mykhailiuk and Brannen Greene. Selden hasn’t quite lived up to the hype his first two seasons, but he’s a junior and is coming off a strong performances in South Korea at the World University Games. Mason has made significant improvement, but he’ll have the difficult task of trying to keep diminutive floor leader Ulis in check. Ulis should be the primary ballhandler now that Andrew Harrison is gone, but Kentucky also has a pair of freshman combo guards who will make immediate impacts: Canadian Murray and McDonald’s All-American Briscoe.
Then there’s the frontcourt. Kansas has some experience with Ellis and Jamari Traylor while Kentucky its own veterans in Poythress and Lee. Poythress may struggle early in the season after missing most of last season with a knee injury, but by late January he’ll have shaken off the rust. Despite vets up front, it could be a pair of freshmen who determine this one: Kansas’ hard-playing forward Diallo (if he is cleared by the NCA) and Kentucky’s skilled forward Labissiere. They are completely different, but both should be among the elite players (not just frosh) next season.
Never too early to predict a winner
Bill Self’s record at Allen Fieldhouse is a ridiculous 190-9, so the numbers certainly tilt heavily in favor of Kansas in this one. While most of the 190 victories didn’t come against teams the caliber of Kentucky, I’m still going with Kansas. Allen Fieldhouse is as hostile a venue (Kansas and Duke are 1A and 1B) as any in the country. However, one advantage Kentucky will have is that this SEC/Big 12 matchup won’t come in the first month of the season – as the majority of the nonconference matchups. It will be played on Jan. 30 – and the Wildcats should have plenty of swagger and the freshmen (Labissiere, Murray, Briscoe) enough experience coming into this one.
I’ll still go with KU due to home court, experience and more depth – with the caveat that Diallo is cleared to play this season. Diallo is everything that many felt that Cliff Alexander would be a year ago – a tough, physical inside player who goes hard on every possession and is able to dominate on the glass.
Final Score: Kansas 71, Kentucky 68.