The No. 12-ranked Kentucky Wildcats will travel to Allen Fieldhouse to face the No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN app) in a Sonic Blockbuster matchup that will also serve as the premier matchup of the day's SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Seven top 25-ranked teams, more than a dozen that appear in the latest version of ESPN's Bracketology, and 10 coaches who have been to the Final Four will be a part of the day's proceedings.
With than in mind, ESPN's college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi made their predictions for UK at KU, sized up the other games they'll have an eye on and assessed the coaches across the two leagues who have done the best jobs in 2021-22.
How surprised would you be to see Kentucky go into Allen Fieldhouse and beat favored Kansas on Saturday (6:00 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN app)? How could it happen, and what would that result say about the Wildcats, and the Jayhawks?
Medcalf: I won't be stunned if Kentucky goes to Lawrence at full strength and wins. But I would be slightly surprised if the Wildcats complete that feat without TyTy Washington Jr. He's a significant contributor for that squad and his impact was obvious when Kentucky lost a healthy lead in last weekend's loss at Auburn. With Washington on the floor this season, Kentucky has scored 115 points per 100 possessions, held opponents to 85 points per 100 possessions and made 40% of its 3-point attempts. Those numbers drop to 103 points per 100 possessions, 90 points per 100 possessions and a 25.5% clip from beyond the arc when he's sidelined, per hooplens.com. Kentucky is still a really good team without the freshman star, but it might need him to get this win, just as they probably needed him to beat Auburn.
I don't think Kentucky has to win in some mysterious way. I think the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country has to do what it has done in SEC play and capitalize on second-chance opportunities. Kentucky is No. 1 in SEC play with a 37% clip from the 3-point line and the Wildcats have made 74% of their shots at the rim, per hoop-math. I don't think any team in America can stall Ochai Agbaji, who might win the Wooden Award. But David McCormack finished 3-for-9 in KU's two losses. I think the Oscar Tshiebwe-McCormack matchup is the most pivotal one in this game. Limiting McCormack changes Kansas and puts more pressure on its wings. I don't think the result would tell us a lot at this point, unless it's an unlikely lopsided win for either team. More than anything, I think we'll walk away feeling as if we just watched a potential Final Four matchup.
Borzello: It wouldn't shock me at all. Kansas has continued to find ways to eke out wins in recent weeks, with three straight victories by three points apiece -- and a one-point win over Iowa State earlier this month. And that game against the Cyclones, as well as the double-overtime win over Texas Tech on Monday, were both at Phog Allen. Even though it's late January, it seems like Kansas is still looking for its best rotation. Agbaji is incredible, but he and Christian Braun have been the only constants. The two keys are McCormack and Remy Martin. McCormack simply needs to be more consistent. Scoring 19 one game and one point the next isn't going to get it done. Martin has to be fully healthy and be the team's catalyst offensively.
For Kentucky to pull off the upset, the Wildcats need to avoid the bizarre injury bug that bit their backcourt against LSU and Auburn this month. A healthy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler need to be on the court for John Calipari. With those two on the floor, Kentucky is able to push the tempo offensively, create chances in transition and play aggressively off the bounce in the half court. With those two attacking, Kellan Grady making shots from the perimeter and Tshiebwe dominating inside at both ends, Kentucky is at its best. I've thought Kentucky is a legitimate national title threat, but it might only have one win so far over an NCAA tournament team (Tennessee). A win at Kansas would certainly make a statement.
Gasaway: KU falling to UK in Lawrence would not be shocking, and no self-respecting headline writer would dare use any form of the word "stun" in the event of such an outcome. In fact, given the Jayhawks' serial propensity to play -- and win -- close games, the safest assumption of all could be that this thing is going to the 40th minute. A healthy and whole rotation would help the Wildcats' chances, naturally. At the ripe old age of 20, Washington is pretty seasoned for a first-year player. In fact, he's just seven months younger than Braun, who is a junior. Maybe that's why Washington looks so polished and in control when healthy. His presence at full speed would be a significant lift for Kentucky and an added headache for Kansas.
Still, the Jayhawks are more than just masters of being clutch. The best offensive rebounder on the floor on Saturday will ... not be named Oscar Tshiebwe? Is this even possible? Indeed it is! McCormack has the nation's No. 1 offensive rebound percentage, and his work on the glass has been an underrated factor in KU's success. In Big 12 play, Bill Self's team has operated at a severe turnover disadvantage relative to opponents. It hasn't mattered in the slightest, because KU's shooting has been really good and its offensive rebounding has been incredible. Of course, Tshiebwe's been magnificent in his own right in holding opponents to just one shot. This will be a true strength-on-strength collision on the Jayhawks' missed shots. Grab some popcorn and enjoy.
Lunardi: I'm going to take this on from a seeding standpoint. The Jayhawks have slithered their way onto the top line of the projected bracket and this is exactly the kind of game that could keep them there. It also provides a measure of insurance heading into the pending February encounters with Baylor. Lose to Kentucky and the Jayhawks might have to sweep the Bears to be a 1-seed. A win mitigates what would be a very heavy lift.
For the Wildcats, this is a classic "free shot" game. Not only are we unsure of Kentucky's injury situation, but everyone -- even mighty Big Blue Nation -- is supposed to lose at the Phog. Any loss other than a true beating keeps the Wildcats in their current 3/4-seed range. A win brings a No. 2 seed into play with dreams of something even better. Am thinking I'll probably tune in.
Beyond the marquee matchup, give us a game in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge that intrigues you, and tell us why.
Borzello: Baylor at Alabama. From a neutral fan's perspective, this should be a fun one. There will be shot-makers and playmakers all over the court. James Akinjo -- if healthy -- Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer on one side; Jahvon Quinerly, Jaden Shackelford, JD Davison and Keon Ellis on the other. Both teams like to push the tempo, make 3s and play with confidence.
No. 19 Texas Tech goes into No. 1 Baylor's house and comes away with a 65-62 upset on Tuesday.
But Saturday's tilt is also crucial for both teams. For Baylor, the Bears need a win to keep up in the race for a 1-seed -- but more importantly, they need to get healthy. Akinjo has missed two of the last three games and wasn't himself in two other games in recent weeks, either. On the plus side, freshman Jeremy Sochan played 21 minutes on Tuesday after missing four games in a row. As for Alabama, the Crimson Tide badly need to find some consistency. This is a team with wins over Gonzaga, Houston, LSU and Tennessee ... and losses to the likes of Georgia, Missouri and Memphis. After Baylor, Alabama plays at Auburn and home against Kentucky. It's a critical stretch for Nate Oats' team.
Medcalf: I'll take the "Rick Barnes Goes Back to Austin" storyline in Tennessee's matchup at Texas. Plus, a Tennessee squad that's been searching for a rhythm has a shot to go on the road and win its fourth consecutive game. Meanwhile, Chris Beard and the Longhorns, who recently overcame a 1-3 stretch, can win their third game in a row. That matters. But Barnes is the last head coach who positioned Texas to win a national championship. Both Shaka Smart and now Beard understand the challenges attached to that role. In many ways, Barnes looks like the winner in that situation. He moved on to Tennessee and built a contender. The Longhorns hired Beard to bring the program back to the Final Four, which Barnes achieved nearly 20 years ago. He's still respected down there. Adds a little juice to a key game for both squads.
Lunardi: The most pivotal "bubble game" is West Virginia at Arkansas (and who would have written that sentence when the pairings came out?). Both currently reside in the Last Four Byes category, despite heading in plainly opposite directions.
The Mountaineers, who have lost four in a row, need an immediate change of fortune and could very well miss the NCAA tournament for just the third time in 15 years under Bob Huggins. A road win in this event, however unexpected it may be, remains one obvious turning point. The Razorbacks have quietly recovered from an earlier funk to post five straight SEC victories. They could use another win in advance of playing three of their next five in-conference away from home.
Missouri Tigers vs. Arkansas Razorbacks: Full Highlights
In a barely related thought, if we're being honest, the very best matchup would have required a late tweak of the Challenge pairings. The home/road slotting was already in place to send defending national champion Baylor to current No. 1 Auburn (instead of Alabama, not that either is a poor choice). Is it too late to re-route the Baylor and Oklahoma buses once the teams arrive in the Cotton State?
Gasaway: I'm looking forward to Mississippi State's visit to Texas Tech. The Bulldogs are an excellent example of a good team that "hasn't beaten anybody." Actually, Ben Howland's group has gotten the better of both Arkansas and Alabama, it's just that both the Razorbacks and the Crimson Tide have alternated between "anybody" and "not" status for much of the season. In any event, MSU came within an overtime of taking down Kentucky at Rupp Arena (on a night when TyTy Washington didn't play), and Iverson Molinar absolutely torched the Wildcats for 30 points. All of Molinar's scoring came inside the arc, and he'll give the outstanding defense of the Red Raiders a real test. Should be a good one.
A total of 10 of the 20 coaches participating in Saturday's SEC/Big 12 Challenge have been to the Final Four. Which of those 10 has impressed you the most this season, and which of the "other" 10 will be the next to reach the Final Four?
Gasaway: The first answer has to be Bruce Pearl, right? His team is No. 1 in the nation and the Tigers have earned that status by excelling on both sides of the ball. Jabari Smith has rightly earned the lion's share of attention for what he's able to do at his height and age on offense, but do not look past this Auburn defense. This has been the best interior D in SEC play to this point in the season, and Walker Kessler is on a rampage. Pearl has the complete package this year and could win it all.
As for the next coach on this list who will reach the Final Four, that will be Mike Boynton. It won't be the 2022 national semifinals, of course, unless the NCAA changes its mind and rescinds that postseason ban handed down for long-ago misdeeds. But it's conceivable that none of the other nine coaches are getting there this year either, and Boynton does possess certain advantages. He's already signed a No. 1 recruit nationally who then went on to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. (That would be Cade Cunningham.) The Cowboys play excellent defense and have recorded wins over Baylor and Texas despite the fact that this offense has been known to struggle. Boynton will have OSU playing on the season's final weekend sooner rather than later.
Lunardi: Is it boring to name Scott Drew "most impressive" while coaching the defending national champions? Pearl is the more obvious answer, but did anyone really expect Baylor to be chasing a realistic repeat opportunity after losing the essence of a title team?
As for the next coach in line for a Final Four, how about a semi long shot in Mark Adams? Texas Tech has been there recently and could certainly do it again. Like this year.
Medcalf: The answer is Pearl, as my colleagues stated. But No. 2? Scott Drew because I don't think anyone thought Baylor would find a way to compete for a national championship again after losing the key pieces from an experienced squad. They had the makings of an NCAA tournament team but I think most folks expected a letdown. Barring a weird, two-game slide earlier this month, the Bears look like they could defend their championship.
The other group? I'll take T.J. Otzelberger. An Iowa State squad that won two games -- two! -- last season has already amassed a 15-5 record and positioned itself to grab a respectable seed in the NCAA tournament. Otzelberger was Fred Hoiberg's assistant in Ames, when they turned that program into a hub for transfers before the transfer portal existed. He's going to add big pieces in the coming years and find the right combination to get this team to the Final Four.
Borzello: The answer to the first part is unquestionably Pearl. He took a borderline preseason top-25 team and has the Tigers atop the rankings and looking like a legitimate national championship contender. But I'll also give credit to the clear second-most impressive coaching job this season, and that's Drew. Baylor has a real chance to be the first back-to-back national champion since Florida, and that seemed like a far-fetched idea entering the season. No Jared Butler, no Davion Mitchell, no MaCio Teague, no Mark Vital -- and yet the Bears keep rolling in Waco. Entering the weekend, they're 72-8 over the last three seasons. That's simply remarkable.
I love the second part of the question. I think Will Wade has the best chance of going this season, given LSU's defensive dominance so far -- and the eventual healthy return of Xavier Pinson and Darius Days. But I don't think any of the 10 are likely headed to New Orleans this season. That's why I think Eric Musselman or Nate Oats could be the answer. Arkansas reached the Elite Eight last season, should make the NCAA tournament again this season and brings in a top-five recruiting class next fall. Alabama won the SEC last season and reached the Sweet 16, the Crimson Tide have already knocked off Gonzaga and Houston this season -- and also bring in a top-five recruiting class next season.
Give us a predicted final tally on the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
Medcalf: SEC, 6-4
Borzello: Tie, 5-5
Gasaway: Big 12, 6-4
Lunardi: SEC, 6-4