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  • Both Kansas and Kentucky have a shot at picking up a marquee win that would resonate into March on Saturday. But what will determine the outcome of this pivotal clash?
By Michael Shapiro
January 25, 2019

The college basketball community circled Jan. 26 on its calendar way back in October, priming itself for a titanic battle between then-No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Kentucky. The early 2019 matchup would presumably pit two Final Four favorites against one another, with the winner potentially holding the inside track to a top seed in March. Conference crowns were assumed—although Rick Barnes’s Tennessee squad did enter the season No. 6 in the AP poll—and national titles weren’t out of reach.

The road hasn’t been as smooth as originally assumed. Kansas has yet to separate from the pack in the Big 12, and was downright embarrassed at Iowa State in a 77–60 loss on Jan. 5. The Wildcats’ season started with a drubbing, losing 118–84 to Duke on opening night in early November. Freshman guards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro struggled in the season’s first month, with an inexperienced squad looking shaky offensively until the final weeks of December. As Kansas and Kentucky found their footing, Tennessee, Duke and Michigan rose as college basketball’s top teams.

Yet despite the early struggles, the two teams find themselves squarely in the top 10 entering Saturday’s matchup at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. John Calipari and Co. won at Auburn on Jan. 19, then defended home court against Mississippi State on Tuesday to sit No. 8 in the nation. Add the pair of conference wins with victories over Louisville and North Carolina, and a top-three seed is well within reach. A pivotal matchup will come on Feb. 16 when Kentucky hosts the Volunteers. The rematch will occur in Knoxville on March 3.

GREENE: How NET Rankings Are Impacting Team Résumés

As for No. 9 Kansas, its tally of quality victories is among the best in the nation. The Jayhawks defeated Michigan State, Tennessee and Villanova all before the new year, and while a loss at West Virginia provided a modicum of embarrassment, the talent for a Final Four team is there. Dedric Lawson is a legitimate first-team All-America candidate, while Lagerald Vick continues to steady as a senior. Kansas is still on track to win the Big 12 without significant contributions from highly-touted freshmen Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson.

So the stage is set for Rupp Arena on Saturday night. Both Kansas and Kentucky have rebounded from early hiccups, now poised to chase conference crowns and top seeds in the NCAA tournament. Another top-10 win could do wonders for a team’s résumé, and we very well could see these teams meet again in March.

Here are three keys to watch in the weekend’s marquee matchup.

Can Kentucky’s Bigs Feast?

The Jayhawks find themselves disadvantaged up front in this matchup after center Udoka Azubuike underwent season-ending wrist surgery in December. The junior big man served as the anchor of Kansas’s defense beginning in 2017–18, averaging over 1.5 blocks per game in each of the last two seasons. Azubuike is a legitimate 7’0” and a force inside, both a shot intimidator and ferocious rebounder. He even evolved into a stronger lob threat down the stretch last year as well. With Azubuike now out, Kansas often plays without a traditional big, leaving Lawson as its primary rim deterrent. Expect Stanford transfer Reid Travis and sophomore PJ Washington to attack the glass with abandon, attempting to feast on second-chance points. Kentucky, which has the nation's eighth-best offensive rebounding rate, is No. 325 in the nation in made threes. The Wildcats will continue to score from the interior on Saturday.

Will Vick's Shooting Stay Hot?

We noted the Memphis native’s maturation above, with 2018–19 marking career highs in points and usage. But where Vick has made the greatest stride this season is beyond the arc. The senior has made 58 threes in 19 games this season. His previous career high was 59 made threes in 35 games last year. Vick is shooting a preposterous 45.7% from three, making over three triples per game. He’s gone from serviceable to sharpshooter in one offseason.

Vick’s shot often serves as a bellwether for the Jayhawks, who otherwise lack consistent perimeter shooting. He’s combined to shoot just 33% from the field in Kansas’s trio of losses, averaging 11 points per game. It’s hard to envision the Jayhawks stealing a win in Lexington without a solid night from their senior guard.

Freshman Face-Off

As matchups between top programs tend to boil down to in the one-and-done era, the decider of Saturday’s matchup may be the team’s respective freshmen. The matchup in the backcourt will be of particular note, as Johnson and Herro of Kentucky—who combine to average 28.3 points—battle Kansas’s duo of Dotson and Grimes—who combine for 19.1. The Wildcats’ freshman pair came through with 20 points each at Auburn. Can the Jayhawks’ five-star recruits finally deliver? They’ll need to grow up fast to pull off a victory on Saturday.

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