It’s the type of game that gets the adrenaline flowing in the media, fans, and players. You really don’t have to struggle for reasons to watch two of college basketball’s winningest programs square off. Saturday in Phog Allen Fieldhouse Tubby Smith’s Kentucky Wildcats will be looking to play the role of “home court spoiler”, much like Kansas did last year at Rupp.
Thursday Kansas coach Bill Self talked about how talks are in the works to continue this series. Though nothing is definitive yet all indications are that two of college basketball’s most storied programs will continue to square off in a yearly battle. That’s good news for fans of both teams and all of college hoops really.
Kansas has won five straight and is looking to take some momentum into Big 12 play which begins next week at Colorado. A home win against a ranked Kentucky team would add a valuable morale boost and be a great way for Self’s young squad to hit the ground running in conference.
"A good performance on Saturday would be a great springboard for our kids' confidence going into conference play,” Self stated Thursday at his weekly press conference. “You can get confidence from winning games, but you still have to go out and beat someone of national magnitude to really believe that it's going to help you win a hard game. Beating Cal the way we did in the second half was a good win for us, but we still need a big feather in our cap."
But it won’t be easy. Kentucky has won their last four games, and unlike Kansas, the Cats do have a couple of “feathers in their caps” with wins over West Virginia and Louisville. Of course that being said, they’ve also escaped a couple of big-time upsets against the likes of Central Florida (59-57), Iona (73-67), and Ohio (71-63), all three are actually quality mid-majors who have a shot at the NCAA tournament.
This one could be a defensive struggle as both teams have labored to score at various points of the season thus far. Kentucky’s shown some inconsistencies this year but you can count on one constant -- defense.
"That's always going to be a staple of a Tubby Smith team. They're going to guard and pressure. They're going to make it very difficult to get easy baskets. We're going to have to earn everything,” Self continued. “Watching last year's tape, it was a great defensive game. We didn't run good offense, and we probably kept them from running good offense because both teams guarded so hard defensively. I'm sure it's going to be a lot of the same on Saturday."
Though plenty was mentioned about Kentucky’s defense, it’s actually Kansas who comes into this game with the better defensive numbers. If you want to get technical Kansas gives up a stingy 59.0 ppg, while Kentucky’s defense allows 61.4 ppg. The Jayhawks opponents shoot 35.5 percent from the floor while the Cats opposition shoots only 39.8 percent. Kansas also averages more blocks per game (6.7 to 3.4) and more steals per game (9.1 to 5.5) than Kentucky. In fact, the only defensive statistic Kentucky gets the nod in is three-point field goal defense. The Cats allows only 29.1 percent while KU allows just 32.6 from behind the arc.
So while Kentucky’s defense garnered much of the attention Thursday, there’s no denying that Bill Self has himself a pretty good defensive team. But Kentucky has one weapon on defense that KU doesn’t --- Rajon Rondo. Kansas will have to find a way to prepare for the Wildcat guard. Kentucky’s do-everything guy is a game-changer on both ends of the floor which makes him a chore to prepare for. Rondo leads the team in scoring, assists, field goal percentage, steals, and amazingly at 6-1, Rondo also leads the team in rebounds. The Kansas guards haven’t faced a defensive player of Rondo’s caliber this season. In fact, Rondo might be the best all-around player KU has faced this season.
"I think Rondo is the best, most complete guard in the country. He has a unique way about him. He can change the game in one or two possessions because of his length defensively and his hands. That's something that we have to be prepared for,” Self stated.
So what type of advice will Self offer his young team on facing Rondo’s relentless defense?
“The biggest thing is you have to respect him. You can’t be nervous to play against him but you have to respect him and understand that he’s crafty at all times,” continued Self. “That’s one thing that Aaron (Miles) did such a great job with last year that our guards have to a very good job with this year – knowing anytime you get careless he’ll make you pay.”
Valuing the basketball will be the difference between winning and losing. Turnovers that lead to points will be a hot commodity in this one with both squads likely to be grinding it out in the half court. Easy points will take some of the pressure off the offenses.
That’s not a surprise considering the two coaches feature similar styles of play. Both love tough, defensive-minded teams and there’s a ton of respect between Self and Smith who both spent part of their coaching career at Tulsa.
"Over time, I think Tubby Smith has done as a good a job as any coach in America. I think if you were to poll the coaches across the country, I think the majority would say the same thing. His teams are always tough. They compete and operate under probably the most pressure that a team can operate under in America. They always play well away from home, which is a testimony to a guy that makes his players tough and hard,” Self continued. “He really helped me at Tulsa. Without him starting the success there, we may not have experienced the success that we had when I was there. I have unbelievable respect for Tubby. On top of him being a really good coach, I think he's a really good guy as well. He's done a lot for our profession."