This week's challenger is Whit Ladue of College Park, Md.
No. 2 Kansas at No. 8 Kentucky, Sunday 4:30 p.m. ET
Last winter, for a story I was writing for SI On Campus, I had the pleasure of accompanying the Kansas Jayhawks on a trip from Lawrence, Kan., to Reno, Nev. The team traveled in style. KU flew on a private aircraft with all first-class seats. Every player and coach got a portable DVD player and a huge choice of movies to watch. When the plane landed, a bus pulled right onto the tarmac, where baggage handlers loaded the luggage and equipment while the players boarded the bus.
This particular Kansas team, however, apparently finds such circumstances too burdensome. Or maybe they're all claustrophobic and get airsick easily. How else to explain that the Jayhawks have yet to leave their home state for a game this season? All but one of KU's games has been in Allen Fieldhouse. It's no coincidence Kansas has won all 10.
When the Jayhawks walk into Rupp Arena on Sunday, however, they'll realize they're not in Kansas anymore. There are two reasons Kentucky hasn't lost to a higher-ranked team at home in 12 years. First, few teams have been ranked higher than Kentucky. Second, Rupp, like Allen Fieldhouse, is an intense environment even for ordinary games. This is no ordinary game, and both the Cats and their fans will act accordingly.
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about Kansas, but the Jayhawks' tendency to play down to their competition has produced some bad habits. Their comeback win against Georgia Tech, when they out-rebounded the Yellow Jackets by three even though Wayne Simien was hurt, showed incredible heart. It also showed KU isn't a team that should have to sweat so hard to beat Vermont, Pacific, South Carolina, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Texas A&M at home.
The good news for Kansas is that without Simien, the team is being forced to overcome its weaknesses -- namely, outside shooting and the lack of a rebounding complement to Simien. Freshman forwards Alex Galindo, C.J. Giles, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun all have been pressed into action. (Galindo hit another big 3-pointer to stave off Texas A&M on Wednesday.) Michael Lee also scored 10 points against the Aggies, and even little-used Moulayne Niang found his way onto the floor for 11 productive minutes. That gives Kansas a lot more bodies (and thus, fouls to give) than Kentucky has.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, are a hard team to figure right now, but it's not hard to figure out where they're going. Freshman point guard Rajon Rondo looked a little unsure of himself for a while, but now he is playing with more confidence and aggressiveness. UK is still not a very good 3-point shooting team, but the 'Cats do a good job of finding a hot hand (usually Patrick Sparks or Kelenna Azubuike) and sticking with it. Chuck Hayes has been a little soft around the basket, but that will be less of a problem against Kansas with Simien out of the lineup. And if Randolph Morris ever gets his stamina to the point where he can play more than 19.5 minutes a game, look out.
As I wrote in my stock report earlier this week, Kansas is built for March, and I expect the Jayhawks to make a run deep into the tournament. But this game is being played in early January, without their best player in the paint or their passionate fans in the bleachers. If this game were being played on a neutral court, I'd go with the Jayhawks, but there's one thing Kansas knows better than anyone else: There's no place like home.
Seth's Pick: Kentucky 71, Kansas 67
Ladue: Kansas finally leaves Allen Fieldhouse to face some stiff competition. Kansas has gotten tons of breaks so far this season and youth is served in a thriller. Expect Kentucky to take an early lead, but Kansas will make it respectable at the end.
Reader's Pick: Kentucky 81, Kansas 72