Kansas coach Bill Self has been told by reliable sources — members of Big Blue Nation — to expect a crazed atmosphere on Saturday when basketball powerhouses KU and Kentucky meet in cavernous, 23,000-seat Rupp Arena.
“When we were in New York for the Champions Classic, there were a lot of Kentucky fans: ‘Hey Self, can’t wait. Payback. Can’t wait to get you in January,’ ” Self said with a laugh, speaking of fans who spoke to him on Nov. 15 in New York’s Madison Square Garden. That’s where Kansas beat Duke and Kentucky stopped Michigan State in a one-day doubleheader.
“I’m sure it will be as juiced a home crowd as they’ve had in recent memory,” added Self, whose Jayhawks defeated the Wildcats 90-84 in overtime last Jan. 30 at Allen Fieldhouse. “I do think they think like that (wanting revenge), which we would too if they got us on their home floor and they were coming to ours (the following season).
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The rematch of last year’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge contest is set for a 5:15 p.m. tip, before fans sure to be extra revved-up with ESPN’s Game Day crew in Lexington.
“It’s a big building (but) we are totally capable of going in and playing well. We certainly anticipate doing so,” said Self, who directed KU to a 65-59 victory over UK back on Jan. 9, 2005, in Rupp Arena.
The No. 2-ranked Jayhawks (18-2, 7-1 Big 12) and No. 4-rated Wildcats (17-3, 7-1 SEC) enter this year’s contest coming off road losses. KU fell to West Virginia, while Kentucky lost to Tennessee on Tuesday.
“Honestly, it made me feel better when I found out they lost, just so we’re not the only team coming off a loss. If we both came off losses or if we both came off wins … it’s going to be a big game no matter what,” said Kentucky guard De’Aaron Fox.
Fox — he who averages 16.2 points a game — is one of four freshmen to start for coach John Calipari’s Wildcats. The others: guard Malik Monk and forwards Edrice “Bam” Adebayo and Wenyen Gabriel.
Monk, from Bentonville, Ark., who averages a team-leading 21.9 points per game, scored 47 points in a 103-100 win over North Carolina on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas.
“He’s tall, a true guard and unbelievable athlete,” Self said of Monk, who has 47 assists to 41 turnovers and a team-best 61 threes (out of 153 attempts) for a team that averages 92.2 points a game.
“He’s definitely one of the best athletes if not the best we play this year. He’ll try to dunk everything. At 6-4 (he’s listed 6 foot, 3 inches) he explodes so well. When he elevates it is an open shot even if a guy is contesting the shot well because of his ability to elevate. You’ve got to play him before he catches, not let him get rhythm shots. You can’t let him have a big night, have to try to eliminate the three. He (also) has an in-between game where he can get to the hole. It has to be a team effort.”
Fox, 6-3 from Houston, has 118 assists to 43 turnovers and leads the team with 32 steals.
“When you talk about pure athletic ability, every NBA scout would tell you nobody goes endline to endline faster than De’Aaron,” Self said. “It’ll be a challenge for our experienced guards (Frank Mason, Devonté Graham) who are really fast going against freshmen who are freakishly athletic. Slowing them in transition will be a huge defensive key,” Self added.
Fox is familiar with KU’s program.
“I mean, for me I’m not going to get geeked up. I know what Kansas is. They recruited me. I know about tradition. I know about all that,” Fox said. “It’s going to be a big game, but I just feel like you’ve got to stay level-headed and go through every game the same.”
Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe, the oldest Wildcat starter, averages 14.1 points and 4.8 boards.
Kentucky has a pair of inside standouts in the 6-10 Adebayo, who averages 13.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, and the 6-9 Gabriel, who averages 6.0 points and 6.3 rebounds. KU senior Landen Lucas figures to guard Adebayo.
“The young man and I put emphasis on man is awfully hard to keep from catching it from two to three feet,” Self said of Adebayo. “If he does, he’s so strong and explosive he can go over you or through you. You have to come up with some way to keep him from getting the ball close to the basket. Whether we trap the post, we’ll have to come up with some way to keep him from getting the ball close to the basket.”
KU, which trails the all-time series to Kentucky 22-7, would like to continue to chip away at the gap under Self, who is 4-3 versus UK. Kentucky coach John Calipari is 3-1 vs. Kansas as UK’s coach.
“They’ll be amped up,” Self said. “We have to stick together, have tight huddles, always think next play. We can’t let one bad play affect the next play. When you go in a hostile venue against a team as talented as Kentucky, toughness (is factor).”
Top teams lose this week
Kentucky coach Calipari was asked Friday at a news conference about Villanova, KU and Kentucky all losing this week.
“I could really care less,” Calipari said. “I’m only worried about my team and coaching my guys. We all had road games and tough schedules. I mean, our issues probably aren’t what other guys’ issues are. Everybody has their own thing they’re dealing with.”
Calipari comments on KU missing Bragg
KU on Saturday will play without Carlton Bragg, who has been suspended by Self for violation of team rules. Self told The Star that Bragg did not make the trip to Kentucky.
“I mean, I am just worried about how we are playing and what they are going to do. We don’t know what they are going to do. They may go zone. They may go triangle and two. They may trap the post. They may go small and make us go,” Calipari said. “So whether he plays or doesn’t play – and I guess he is not playing, I don’t know, I haven’t read a whole lot on it – but at this stage I am not worried about them. Let’s really get something out of this (practice Friday) and go play as well as we can play. That is it.”
Calipari on the two programs
“Well, they both have great tradition. I remember when I was there (working for both Ted Owens, then Larry Brown) — Coach Owens is going to be at practice today — who got me in this profession. We were in Allen Fieldhouse in the old locker room and they had literally a shower that was 50 years old and I’m thinking, ‘Phog Allen showered in this shower.’ They had a good shower and that old one. I always went in the old one. And from Wilt Chamberlain, you think of Jo Jo (White), all the guys that played there and all the guys (that played at UK),” Calipari said.