Two Shades of Blue

CHICAGO - Tradition vs. Tradition. On Sunday afternoon at the United Center, it doesn't get any better than Kansas against Kentucky.  Two of the top three winningest programs in college basketball history will be going head-to-head at approximately 4 p.m. in an NCAA Tournament second-round matchup.

Of course, all Jayhawk fans know about the illustrious tradition of Kansas basketball.  But Kentucky boasts a proud tradition of its own.

Consider this:

  • No. 1 all-time winningest college basketball program with 1,948 victories (KU is No. 3 with 1,904 wins.)
  • *Seven NCAA titles
  • The highest winning percentage in college basketball history (.762).
  • 13 Final Four appearances.
  • No. 1 all time in the number of NCAA Tournament appearances (48), games, (140), and wins (98).

With all this tradition and all this rich history between Kentucky and Kansas, the two teams have met just once before in the Big Dance.  In 1999, the Wildcats beat KU 92-88 in OT in the second round.

So now eight years later, No. 1 seed KU (31-4) and No. 8 seed Kentucky (22-11) tangle up again for the right to advance to the Sweet 16 in San Jose, Calif.  While the game is being hyped as a duel between two heavyweight tradition-rich powers, don't expect the Jayhawks to be focusing much on legends from yesteryear like former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp and KU’s own Phog Allen.

"We’re really just thinking about the game coming up and what we have to do to get past it," said freshman guard Sherron Collins.  "We’re just listening to detail, listening to coach.  I know we have a lot of history with them, but we’re not thinking about it."

KU head coach Bill Self is also centered on the task at hand.

"It’s 19-5 (all-time series record), hopefully six," Self said.  "But it was 19-3, so we’ve actually beat Kentucky the last two years.  But to me, those last two games don’t mean anything and the previous 22 don’t mean anything at all.  This is two new teams playing on a neutral site and I would imagine we’ll have a good crowd and I imagine Kentucky will have a good crowd.  I think it will be about as neutral as you can get and two good teams hooking up."

Self, though, can’t help but think about the magnitude of this second-round matchup.

"I don’t think very often the winningest program of all time and the third winningest team of all time play a game for such high stakes," Self said.  "I know I’m excited and I’m sure our players will be very excited about taking on the Wildcats."

Freshman forward Darrell Arthur, for one, relishes the opportunity to face the all-time winningest college basketball program.

"I think every game is meaningful, but this is going to be a high rate game," Arthur said.  "There’s tradition behind both teams.  I think it’s going to be a grind it out game."

If Kansas is to make it three straight victories over Kentucky (KU beat Kentucky 73-46 last year in Lawrence), the Jayhawks must stop 6-11 center Randolph Morris, one of the premier players in the country.  Morris, who scored 19 points and grabbed 11 boards  in the Wildcats' 67-58 victory over Villanova Friday night, averages 15.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.  He’s had 12 double-doubles this year, and will be the primary focus of the Jayhawks' defensive attack.

"We got to cut him off," said sophomore guard Mario Chalmers.  "He’s the head of the team and the heart and soul, so you got to cut the head off to be successful."

Morris respects KU’s post defenders, and knows they’ll try to keep him from touching the ball.

"I’ll be prepared for whatever they throw at me," he said.

Self knows Morris will pose a huge challenge and "a load."

"To me, he changes everything on how you prepare for them and how you defend them," Self said.  "We’ve played (Joakim) Noah and (Al) Horford, and to me, Morris will be as difficult to guard individually as anybody we’ve played against because Kentucky plays through him whereas some other teams maybe have more balance.  We’re really going to have to limit his touches.  He’s good on the glass.  He really gets to the free-throw line and certainly one of the best players we’ve played against all year."

The Wildcats have some other talented players as well.  Junior guard Joe Crawford is a stellar player and averages 14.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, while fellow guard Ramel Bradley averages 13.8 points and is the team leader in assists. Freshman guard Jodie Meeks comes off the bench and ranks fourth in scoring at 8.6 points per game.

6-8 forward Bobby Perry is the fifth-leading scorer, and as the lone senior in the starting lineup, he knows what it will take to beat Kansas.

"Tempo is definitely a huge factor of success in victory or defeat," Perry said.  "They’re a team that really likes to push the ball and they’re a great defensive team.  A lot of their offense is created from their defense.  So for us to slow them down and limit the turnovers and just get what we want on the offensive end will be a huge help for us."

After losing four of five games in February, Kentucky has won three of its last five games coming into Sunday’s matchup.  At 22-11, this isn't the kind of record Wildcat fans expect from this historic program.  Like at Kansas, the Kentucky faithful always expect and desire greatness from their team.

And on Sunday, it will be two tradition-rich programs waging what could be an NCAA battle for the ages.

"We’re obviously looking forward to the challenge of playing the number one seed, the best in our region," Morris said.  "Anytime you can take advantage of these opportunities, it’s going to be a great chance for us."

Self certainly knows the Wildcats will be pumped for their biggest game of the year.  But he knows, too, this Jayhawk club will play with passion and love for the game.

"I don’t know if one game makes a season for either team," Self said, "but I know for us personally, it will be very big.  And for them, I’m sure,  it would be a big step for them considering they didn’t have the type of year maybe that a lot of people have grown accustomed to from a win-loss record."


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