Before every KU men’s basketball game, The Star’s Jesse Newell previews the Jayhawks’ upcoming opponent with a scouting report and prediction.
Saturday’s game: No. 2 Kansas at No. 4 Kentucky, 5:15 p.m. CST in Lexington, Ky. (ESPN)
Opponent’s record: 17-3
KenPom (Ken Pomeroy) Ranking: 2
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Point spread: Kentucky by 7
All statistics from KenPom.com, Hoop-Math.com and Synergy Sports Technology. KenPom stats also only include Division I competition.
▪ Transition offense: Kentucky isn’t as efficient as Kansas is when it runs, but the Wildcats get more fast-break opportunities. Kentucky takes the sixth-highest percentage of shots in transition, which is a big reason for their strong two-point percentage.
▪ Ball security: The Wildcats give it away on just 15 percent of their possessions, which ranks 10th nationally.
▪ Shot blocking: It’s probably not a surprise that Kentucky’s athletic roster does a good job of rejecting shots, as the team ranks 16th nationally in block rate.
▪ Transition defense: Kentucky is middle of the pack when it comes to allowing transition attempts. In other words, there should be opportunities for KU to run after defensive stops.
▪ Three-point shooting: The Wildcats make threes right at the NCAA average (35 percent), but like most John Calipari teams, they barely attempt any. The team ranks 293rd in three-point shot frequency, meaning the Jayhawks should focus most of their efforts on guarding the interior.
▪ Allowing close shots: Part of this goes back to transition defense, but 36 percent of opponents’ shots against Kentucky have been at the rim. And though the Wildcats have good shot-blockers, foes are still making 60 percent of those attempts. This team appears to be more vulnerable inside that previous years.
3 Players to Watch
Six-foot-3 guard De’Aaron Fox (No. 0)
Plus: Ranks sixth in KenPom’s player of the year ranking
Plus: Team’s best passer
Plus: Creates contact and makes 71 percent at line
Plus: Great finisher at the rim for a guard
Minus: Threes are not his specialty (7-for-39, 18 percent)
Six-foot-3 guard Malik Monk (No. 5)
Plus: Ninth in KenPom’s player of the year ranking
Plus: Great shooter everywhere — threes, twos and free throws
Plus: Synergy’s logs rank him as “excellent” overall defender
Plus: Rarely turns it over
Minus: Better at creating shots for himself than others
Six-foot-10 forward Bam Adebayo (No. 3)
Plus: One of nation’s best at creating contact and drawing fouls
Plus: Strong shot-blocker
Plus: Nearly automatic finisher at the rim
Plus: Good offensive rebounder
Minus: Not a great defensive rebounder for his size
Minus: Usage percentage (20 percent) indicates he’s fourth option offensively in starting lineup
Before we go any further, it’s important to put everything in perspective.
This obviously has been a difficult week for KU off the court, but through all that, the only player the Jayhawks will be missing Saturday is Carlton Bragg. And many times in basketball, we probably overemphasize the difference that one person makes, especially when there are other talented players on the same team.
Sure, KU’s depth takes a hit without Bragg. The Jayhawks will be down to eight scholarhip players, and Mitch Lightfoot and Dwight Coleby should be forced into action after combining for just 19 minutes in eight Big 12 games.
Still, Bragg was only averaging 15 minutes, and KU coach Bill Self might be able to soak some of that up by playing Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick more. In any case, I wouldn’t expect Bragg’s suspension to potentially harm KU more than a point or two in this specific game.
Having said all that ... KU was going to have a tough go of it in Lexington even if the craziness of this week hadn’t happened. The Wildcats are strong in transition and should have the benefit of an enthusiastic crowd, which could help turn a few more calls against the already-thin Jayhawks.
KU’s best hope is to run at every possible opportunity. The Jayhawks are third nationally in transition shooting percentage, and this matches up with Kentucky’s defensive weakness. There’s some hope here for the Jayhawks can turn defensive rebounds into immediate points on the other end.
It’s definitely a lot to ask from Frank Mason and Devonté Graham. “So hey, guys, can you play 38 minutes each, lock down two All-America candidates, and also, while you’re out there, find the energy to sprint every time there’s a potential fast break?”
The two guards have proven to be competitors during their KU careers, and you have to figure they’ve been looking forward to this game for quite a while. Maybe they’ll do enough to keep the Jayhawks close.
Like I said ... that still seems like a lot to hope for if you’re Self and KU.
In the end, give me Kentucky for both the win and cover.
Kentucky 86, Kansas 76
Jesse’s pick to cover spread: Kentucky
Hawk to Rock
Josh Jackson appears to have one of the best matchups, as Kentucky has struggled all year to get consistency from its 4 position. The freshman (with openings in transition against the Wildcats defense) should have a chance to lead KU in scoring if he can avoid fouls and remain composed in an emotional game.
Last game prediction: West Virginia 89, Kansas 84, (Actual: WVU 85-69)
2016-17 record vs. spread: 9-9
Last three seasons’ record vs. spread: 50-36-2