One night in November means everything. The same night means nothing.
On Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, No. 5 Kansas will meet No. 1 Kentucky in the Champions Classic. The two programs with the most victories in college basketball history will collide again, their first meeting since the 2012 NCAA championship game. Bill Self will match wits with John Calipari, two future Hall of Fame coaches who share similar roots, similar paths. Two fan bases fueled by history will share an arena in downtown Indianapolis, a heartland locale with its own basketball lore.
“It doesn’t happen that often,” Self said.
Tuesday night in Indianapolis will also mean nothing. It’s mid November. Kansas, 1-0, and Kentucky, 2-0, have combined to play three games. The Jayhawks and Wildcats will play the primetime game of a doubleheader that will also feature No. 4 Duke vs. No. 18 Michigan State. And one result on Nov. 18 — in a game that could feature eight total freshmen — will have little bearing on what transpires over the next five months.
“This team needs to be challenged to see where we are,” Calipari said on Monday. “And this is going to be one of those kind of games.”
“Playing for pride,” Self said.
But Tuesday is still Kansas-Kentucky, the rare matchup that demands to be cherished, if only for its scarcity. The two programs — which share a connective tissue in Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky coach who played for Phog Allen at Kansas — have combined for more than 225 seasons of basketball, 11 NCAA titles and 30 Final Fours. They have also played just 27 times.
Self and Calipari, two coaches who began their careers as lowly graduate and volunteer assistants at Kansas, have faced off just three times since Self arrived in Lawrence in 2003. Two of those matchups came on Monday nights in April with an NCAA title on the line. Self and Kansas beat Calipari and Memphis in 2008; Calipari and Kentucky were victorious in 2012 after beating KU in the first Champions Classic earlier that season.
If you ask Self to describe a Calipari team, you will hear him use certain descriptions. He will mention talent, and defense, and the skill of coaxing a group of top recruits to play together. It’s not so different from the formula that Self has followed in Lawrence.
“It’s not a complicated deal,” Self said. “You recruit the best players you can; you get them to play really, really hard; you get them to like each other, and you get them to play unselfish and tough.”
Calipari says of Kansas: “They’re always well coached; they’re always going to play hard. They’re always going to be physical and get that ball inside. What they do, they do really, really well.”
At the present moment, the programs are not exactly mirror images, of course, but Kansas and Kentucky have shared one attribute during the last two years: Youth.
One year after relying on freshmen and future lottery picks Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Self is attempting to inject four freshmen into a rotation that is currently at around 10 players — but will likely be whittled down to eight or nine before long. For now, the process has been taken in steps. Freshman power forward Cliff Alexander has shown flashes — but has yet to earn a spot in the starting lineup. Freshman swingman Kelly Oubre is still trying to find comfort, Self says, while freshmen guards Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk could be thrown into the maw on Tuesday night.
“There’s not much you can tell them,” junior forward Jamari Traylor said. “This is one of those things you have to go out and experience on your own.”
More than any other program, though, Kentucky has attracted and invested in freshmen, the one-and-done talents that spend nine months on campus before following the assembly line to the NBA. When Kentucky defeated Kansas in the 2012 championship game, the Wildcats started three freshmen, a result that signaled a tipping point in the one-and-done era. Self still believes that freshmen-dominated championship teams are the exception, not the rule, but Calipari is in the midst of another youth movement.
Kentucky has a roster that features a record nine McDonald’s All-Americans, including four freshmen, and four players taller than 6 feet 10. Armed with depth and talent, Calipari has introduced a five-and-five platoon system that has become an early-season curiosity.
For the second straight year, the talk of an undefeated season has surrounded Rupp Arena in Lexington. Last year, the hype became a bull’s eye when Kentucky entered the NCAA Tournament with a 24-10 record and a No. 8 seed. It felt a little less crazy when Calipari rode another young team to the NCAA title game, before bowing out to eventual champion Connecticut.
“We’re going to have be smart,” Self said, “we’re going to have to attack pressure, we’re going to have to do a lot of things. But on the flip side, hopefully we’ll be sound enough where we can create a lot of problems, too.”
Perhaps more than any other sport, college basketball tip toes into its season, starting slow before ending in a March crescendo. It makes for an interesting dichotomy on nights like Tuesday. Two young teams will meet in a basketball game that, by late March, could mean nothing. It’s also Kansas and Kentucky, and earlier this week, some of the Wildcats’ renewed undefeated hype filtered its way to Lawrence.
“We trying to end that quick,” Traylor said.