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Wildcats' Date With Kansas Should Be Key Early Test

Even though the 2014-15 college basketball campaign has just begun, the classic matchup of Kentucky and Kansas on Tuesday night in Indianapolis promises to be an early useful test for both clubs, which are ranked among the Top 5 in the Associated Press preseason poll.

Top-ranked Kentucky’s neutral court date with the No. 5 Jayhawks will be played in the nightcap as a part of the fourth annual State Farm Champions Classic doubleheader, a single-night event which features four of college basketball’s powerhouses. Michigan State and Duke will play in the first game.

The ESPN showdown will be UK’s third game in a six-game stretch in 11 days, including the four-game Cawood Ledford Classic.

(SEE ALSO: Buffalo provides UK with what they needed, not what they expected KyForward)

There are lots of intriguing storylines for the Kentucky-Kansas matchup, which will likely tip off around 9:30 p.m.

- After a couple of exhibition tune-ups with two Kentucky private schools — University of Pikeville and Georgetown College — and two season-opening games with little-known opponents Grand Canyon and Buffalo this past weekend, the Wildcat faithfuls are anxious to see the Cats clash with a much tougher foe. The fans want to know how “scary” good will the Wildcats be this winter? In addition to Kansas, the Cats will later face several big-name schools — Texas, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville — in non-conference battles, all in December.

- Both tradition-rich schools will be meeting for the first time since April 2012 when they last met in the national championship game in New Orleans. UK won the 2012 national title, beating Kansas 67-59 before a Superdome crowd of over 73,000.

- Both teams have the all-time winningest records in college basketball. UK is No. 1 with 2,140 victories, followed by No. 2 Kansas, which has 2,126 wins.

- Don’t forget that Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp’s alma mater is none other than Kansas.
 

- In the series, the Wildcats have a 21-6 advantage over KU. It means that Kentucky has beaten the Jayhawks more than any other school in non-league action.

- Both schools, unbelievably, will showcase 13 McDonald’s All-Americans, including nine with UK and four with Kansas. Coach Bill Self of the Jayhawks last week tried to compare Kentucky with NBA, saying it has more McDonald’s All-Americans than NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers.

While the Jayhawks — who finished with a 25-10 mark last season — have lost a couple of stars in 7-0 Joel Embiid and 6-8 Andrew Wiggins as the duo were among the Top 3 picks in the 2014 NBA Draft, Self has managed to reload the team with rookie superstars such as 6-7 Kelly Oubre and 6-8 Cliff Alexander (a pre-season Freshman of the Year choice in Big 12). These two freshmen are No. 4 and No. 5 in the latest 2015 NBA mock draft (updated as of Nov. 6), according to Draftexpress.net. (UK’s Karl-Anthony Towns, by the way, is projected at No. 3 in that draft.)

And the Jayhawks have nine holdovers from last year, including 6-8 junior Perry Ellis (Athlon Sports’ pre-season conference Player of the Year) and 6-5 sophomore Wayne Selden Jr.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of good players and I’m excited about that because we do have good basketball players,” Self told reporters at Media Day festivities early last month. “We’ve got depth. We don’t have much size. We are pretty deep and pretty skilled at most of the positions.”

During the preseason, the Jayhawks went through their boot camp, which is a grueling two-week conditioning program which begins at 6 a.m.

Self told the Jayhawk Radio Network that he made a mistake last season, saying he went too soft on the players. The coach commented this year’s camp, held in September, was really difficult but the players responded very well.

Said Kansas’ Wayne Selden Jr. of the boot camp, “It was intense to say the least. It was two weeks compared to one week last year, and it was a lot harder.”

Freshman point guard Devonte Graham added, “Now that I look back at it, it was pretty good. There was a lot of endurance in boot camp. It was one of the toughest things that I have done.”

The 6-2 Graham said Self wants the team to work on toughness.

“I can’t speak for last year’s team, but I think this year’s team is going to be a real tough team,” said Graham. “Coach has been telling us that we have to be tough this year, so that is one of things we have been working on.”

Before last Friday night’s season opener at Rupp Arena, Kentucky’s practices, on the other hand, have been extra competitive, according to UK coach John Calipari. Perhaps we’ll find out Tuesday night which team is the toughest. Will that be the Wildcats? Or the Jayhawks?

* * * *

Switching to football, the Wildcats, now 5-6, have one more chance to become bowl-eligible after failing in five straight games.

Kentucky, which dropped to Tennessee 50-16 in a blowout setback last Saturday in Knoxville, will be facing another rival, Louisville, on the road in a regular-season finale on Saturday, Nov. 29.

After a 5-1 start, the loss to UT marked the third time in one month that the Wildcats were overwhelmed by much tougher competition, losing to LSU by 38 points, Georgia by 32, and UT by 34.

Many fans, obviously, are concerned about the team’s recent performance as the Wildcats couldn’t compete in these three SEC matchups.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, however, remains optimistic, saying he has no problems with his team’s attitude and effort.

“Some people may have a hard time understanding that when you get beat 50-16, but I really do,” he said. “I think our guys really want to play well. I thought they really prepared well. They really tried to come in with a good mindset.”

Stoops said the loss was difficult and Tennessee, now 5-5, was a better team last Saturday.

“Tough, tough loss there,” said Stoops. “Give Tennessee credit, they beat us. They outcoached us, outplayed us. They were very prepared, very energetic. They had two weeks to prepare and did a heck of a job. We were exploited at certain positions.”

Even though Kentucky has already shown a nice improvement this season after a pair of 2-10 seasons, it still needs to come with up with a win on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to finish the 2014 campaign on a “feel-good” note. At least, the Cats need to be very competitive with the Cardinals, who face Notre Dame in South Bend this Saturday, and avoid another blowout loss.

And if UK gets invited to a bowl matchup after beating Louisville, that would be even sweeter.

This article appears courtesy of KyForward and is written by Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, and the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of the growing KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. Reach him via e-mail at [email protected].