College Basketball: Kansas and Kentucky Set to Battle in Top 5 Showdown
The Blue Grass State is about to host a battle of Blue Bloods.
The Jayhawks (18-2) rank second in the AP Poll and first in the Coaches Poll, but are coming off a 16-point loss at West Virginia on Tuesday. Kansas ranks seventh in our power ratings here at numberFire and ninth at KenPom, doing so largely on the strength of their offense.
The game may mean more for Kentucky (17-3; ranked 4th in both polls), which could use the opportunity to pick up a quality win and improve their case for a top seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are 1-3 against teams ranked in the Top 50 at KenPom and 3-3 against the RPI Top 50 (which is awful and the worst, but still in use by the selection committee; fortunately, it looks like change is coming in the near future).
This type of resume test undersells the Wildcats, though, as they are third in the country in average margin of victory (+19.7), and their three losses came by a combined 10 points (a five-point loss at home to UCLA, a three-point loss at Louisville and a two-point loss on Tuesday at Tennessee).
Still, rightly or wrongly, the committee puts stock into “quality wins,” and Saturday will be one of Kentucky’s last chances to get one (thanks to a down year in the SEC). Home-court advantage and their slight edge in terms of predictive metrics make them the favorites to do so, as the Wildcats are favored by five points.
When Kansas Has the Ball
The Jayhawks have arguably the country’s top backcourt, as point guard Frank Mason is averaging 19.9 points and 5.2 assists per game, with a 128.9 offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions). Devonte Graham has been nearly as efficient, posting a 128.5 offensive rating while averaging 13.7 points per game.
They are joined by the ultra-talented freshman forward Josh Jackson, who is averaging 15.5 points per game and 110.2 points produced per 100 possessions.
Jackson takes most of his shots inside the arc, but Mason, Graham and small forward Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk have spearheaded a devastating three-point attack. The Jayhawks take comparatively few threes (ranking 220th in three-point attempt per field goal attempt), but have been lethal when they do fire from deep, as only four teams in the nation can best their 41.8% three-point percentage.
Mason is shooting a silly 52.8% on 4.5 three-point attempts per game, while Mykhailiuk is shooting 42.3% on 5.2, and Graham is converting 39.2% of his 6.3.
Kentucky has only allowed a 30.9% three-point percentage, and perhaps more importantly, is good at preventing three-point attempts. The Wildcats rank 73rd nationally in terms of 3PA/FGA (.326), and have excelled here recently. In conference play, their three-point attempt rate allowed has dropped to .296, which leads the SEC and would be 21st nationally if it had been sustained for the season.
The Wildcats have actually been less stingy on the interior, where they are tied for 199th in field goal percentage allowed at the rim (60.0%), according to Hoop-Math. Kansas’ offense ranks 65th in this department, converting on 65.2% of their shots in this area.
Kansas should also have an edge on the offensive glass, where they ranks 28th in rebounding rate; Kentucky is just 154th in defensive rebounding rate.
When Kentucky Has the Ball
Kentucky’s opponent-adjusted offensive rating of 123.1 is second in the nation, and the best ever for a John Calipari-led Kentucky team, according to KenPom. The Wildcats are not a great jump-shooting team, but do so many other things well on offense, it has hardly mattered.
The Wildcats are led by talented freshmen (shocking), as guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox have scored 21.9 and 16.2 points per game, respectively. Both have been incredibly efficient, as Monk is shooting 39.9% on threes (he’s the only player on the team attempting more than 1.4 threes per game) and has a 125.4 offensive rating.
Fox, who does most of his damage inside the arc, has a 118.4 offensive rating, thanks in part to a 32.6% assist rate and .465 free throw attempt per field goal attempt rate. Fellow guard Isaiah Briscoe has added 14.1 points per game (116.2 O-Rating) and center Edrice "Bam" Adebayo is averaging 13.5 (128.6).
The best offense Calipari has coached will be squaring off against one of Bill Self’s least efficient defenses, though keep in mind his past teams have set the high bar.
The Jayhawks have been good, but not great here, ranking 40th with a 95.3 opponent-adjusted defensive rating. This is the lowest a Self team has ranked in the KenPom era (dating back to 2002) and would be the first season his defense ranked worse than 22nd (and only the fifth time it ranked outside of the top 10).
The Jayhawks rank 47th in effective field goal percentage allowed (46.8%) and have been particularly strong inside the arc, where they have allowed the 31st-lowest two-point percentage (43.8%). However, they are not exceptional anywhere else on defense, and this could spell trouble against a Kentucky offense that has the 10th-lowest turnover rate and 18th-highest offensive rebound rate in the nation.
The Kansas defense is just 210th in turnovers forced per possession and is right around the national average in terms of defensive rebounding rate. Even if it can slow the Wildcats (who rank 14th in two-point percentage, 56.0%) inside the arc, Kansas looks like it will face a high volume of shots.
If there is a stalemate at the other end of the floor, this advantage in shot volume could go a long way in helping Kentucky pick up a critical win.