Gameday breakdown: No. 9 Kansas at Kentucky

Kansas guard Bobby Pettiford Jr. (0) looks to throw a baseline pass around Iowa State guard Tamin Lipsey (3) during the second half on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023 at Allen Fieldhouse.

No. 9 Kansas Jayhawks (16-4 overall, 5-3 Big 12) at Kentucky Wildcats (14-6 overall, 5-3 SEC)

Time: 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023

Location: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Kentucky

TV: ESPN | Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network via Learfield

Keys for Kansas

1. Start faster

KU’s recent starts have been atrocious, with the Jayhawks’ opponents racing out to easy buckets and big leads in the game’s first 10 minutes.

Each time, KU has managed to either cut into those leads or erase them altogether, but doing so has forced them to spend a lot of energy and left little in the tank for the final stretch.

Both KU coach Bill Self and junior forward Jalen Wilson said the key to better starts was all about mindset.

“Probably just coming out with more intensity, more energy, having more fun out there,” Wilson said.

This is certainly nothing new for this Kansas team. As far back as the exhibition game against Pitt State, KU started slow before ultimately watching superior size and talent win out.

For the next few games, Kansas jumped out of the gate on fire and it was the Jayhawks’ who built big early leads and cruised to victories. That’s certainly not as easy to do in the Big 12 Conference. Especially this season. But there does appear to be a clear correlation between the way this team starts games and their success — both at home and away.

KU will need to be ready to answer the opening bell right away in this one, or they could be at risk of digging another massive hole that proves to be too deep to climb out of, especially at a place like Rupp Arena and against a program and fan base that will be salivating at the sight of the Jayhawks.

“I’ve always thought this with Cal’s teams,” Self said of UK coach John Calipari. “I’ve always thought they made you beat them when you played them. I never thought they helped you at all. At all. And they’re not going to help this year. We’re going to have to go play because we’re not going to get a ton of easy opportunities, just like I hope they don’t. You’re going to have to earn what you get when you play Kentucky.”

2. How to handle Oscar?

It’s not exactly a secret that Kentucky big man Oscar Tshiebwe is a lot to handle. Some of the Jayhawks have seen him for years, dating back to his days at West Virginia, and all of them remember him from last season during his player of the year campaign.

This year, after an up-and-down start, the Kentucky big man is averaging 16.6 points and 13.9 rebounds per game, while shooting 58.7% from the field in 33 minutes per game.

For an undersized Kansas roster, finding a way to slow down the Wildcats’ 6-foot-9, 260-pound forward is a huge part of this matchup. And it comes down to making sure it’s a team effort.

“We’ve just got to bring the physicality to him,” Wilson said. “He’s a beast in there. Just keep somebody on him at all times, being physical with him. He’s such a strong dude, we’ve got to have guys willing to be physical and touch him first and not allow him to be comfortable.”

Self called Tshiebwe “probably the best big man in the country,” and noted that there could be a fine line between game planning to stop him and focusing on him too much.

“It’s a situation you want to slow him down,” Self said. “But you also don’t want to give him so much attention and let other guys have some freedom that maybe allows them to have really big games, too. And they’re capable at all spots.”

The Jayhawks will rely on sophomore guard KJ Adams’ strength and athleticism to do what he can against the bigger Tshiebwe. But Self also noted that back-up bigs Ernest Udeh Jr., Zuby Ejiofor and Zach Clemence all needed to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.

“Everybody knows this,” Self said. “But one of the biggest factors of KJ guarding Oscar would be foul situations. So, you may be forced to play one of those (other) guys a lot more.”

3. Take care of the basketball

Turnovers have been an issue for the Jayhawks in the past couple of weeks, particularly at the point guard position, where Dajuan Harris Jr. and Bobby Pettiford have turned it over more than usual.

And this could — could — be a good game to get right in that department.

In addition to the Jayhawks feeling a sense of pride to lock in and right the ship, they’re catching a Kentucky team that’s not exactly known for forcing turnovers.

The UK defense ranks just below the national average in turnover defense, forcing teams to cough up the ball on 18.3% of their possessions. That ranks 199th nationally per, and the Jayhawks are giving it away at a rate of 17.8%.

If KU can keep that number down under 15% in this one, it will have a great chance to not only come away with a win but also to keep the home crowd and momentum out of the equation.

Beyond that, the Jayhawks would do well to flip the script in the turnover department. KU ranks 55th in turnover defense, forcing teams to give it away on 21.1% of their possessions, and turnovers that lead to easy buckets is likely a big part of KU’s plan to break its three-game losing streak.

It all starts with Harris. Sure, he’s hit a shooting slump of late, but he can’t compound those shooting woes by turning the ball over. Easier said than done, especially against the competition that Kansas has faced of late. But it’s a critical part of this battle.

Marquee Matchup

Who wins the battle on the glass

The Jayhawks struggled to keep Baylor off of the offensive glass on Monday night in Waco and it buried them.

Baylor out-rebounded Kansas 17-8 on its own misses, and the Wildcats are one of the best teams in the country at getting theirs.

Kentucky ranks second in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom, getting back a whopping 38.8% of their own misses. Kansas, meanwhile ranks 198th nationally in giving up offensive boards, allowing opponents to get 29% of their misses back.

Simply put, the number has to be closer to Kansas’ season average than Kentucky’s for the Jayhawks to have a chance in this way. And, according to Wilson, that means one thing will be the biggest key in this department– box out.

“You can’t jump with Oscar,” Wilson said. “He gets rebounds for a living. They’re tough when he’s getting rebounds like that, especially with second-chance points. So that’ll be one of the biggest (points of) emphasis.”

Added Self: “KJ has been so focused on ‘don’t let my guy get the rebound.’ And that’s OK. But that means Jalen and Gradey (Dick) and Kevin (McCullar Jr.) better get them all.”

Even if that happens, Self noted that with KJ simply focusing on boxing his man out, “We still don’t have our tallest, most athletic guy going after the ball. It’s something we’ve got to do a much better job of.”

Jayhawk Pulse

Whether in November at the Champions Classic, in January in this event or in March at the Big Dance, any time Kansas and Kentucky get together, it’s a big deal.

Self said it doesn’t mean quite as much to him, personally, as it probably does to KU’s fan base, simply because he’s only been a small part of the KU-UK rivalry, which not only includes bragging rights among the blue bloods, but also a fight for the top spot on college basketball’s all-time win list.

Self wants to win this game because it’s the next one. And he’ll want to win the one after that just as badly, just like he wanted to win the one before it with everything he had. That’s just how he’s wired. Several of his players are, too, but Wilson said this week that there’s an extra layer to the KU-Kentucky matchup.

“It means a lot,” he said. “It’s a lot of pride on the table. It took a lot from us last year to get ahead of them. All those wins are just a representation of everyone who’s sacrificed to win here and to carry that is a great honor.”

For a while, it looked as if Kansas might pick up even more wins on the Wildcats this season. While Kentucky was struggling to four losses in a seven-game stretch and falling out of the rankings, the Jayhawks raced out to a 16-1 start. But it’s the Wildcats who have been red hot of late, winning four in a row entering this one, including a big win over Tennessee, which bullied and battered the Jayhawks in the Bahamas back in November.

Kansas, meanwhile, has dropped three in a row and the two teams are on very different sides of the confidence equation. Still, Wilson said the Jayhawks aren’t holding on to any of those recent shortcomings.

“They’ve definitely turned around their season,” the Big 12’s leading scorer said. “But we’re looking for a win just like they are. It’s not really up to what streak they’re on. It’s about who’s going to be the better team that day.”

Kentucky leads the all-time series with Kansas, 24-10, including an 8-2 record in games played in the Wildcats’ home arena. The Jayhawks have won four of the last six meetings between the two, and they’re tied at two wins apiece in head-to-head matchups in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, which is in its 10th and final season.

Self is 7-6 all-time against Kentucky — 7-5 while at Kansas — and Calipari is 5-5 all-time against the Jayhawks, 5-4 during his time in Lexington.

In all-time head-to-head matches between the two coaches, both of whom were assistants on Larry Brown’s Kansas staffs in the 1980s, Calipari leads Self 6-5, including their stops at Memphis and Illinois.

This will be the 10th matchup of these two college basketball powers in the past 12 years.

Probable Starters

No. 9 Kansas

G – Dajuan Harris Jr., 6-1, 175, Jr.

G – Kevin McCullar Jr., 6-6, 210, Sr.

G – Gradey Dick, 6-8, 205, Fr.

F – Jalen Wilson, 6-8, 225, Soph.

F – KJ Adams, 6-7, 225, Soph.


G – Cason Wallace, 6-4, 193, Fr.

G – CJ Fredrick, 6-3, 175, Sr.

G – Chris Livingston, 6-6, 220, Soph.

F – Jacob Toppin, 6-9, 205, Sr.

F – Oscar Tshiebwe, 6-9, 260, Sr.


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