Two of the nation’s elite college basketball programs square off Tuesday night in the grandest of venues, as the No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats take on the No. 12/11 Kansas Jayhawks in the Champions Classic at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
This game is what big-time college hoops is all about — two great coaches, two great traditions and two great teams battling for bragging rights and early season accolades in front of a Big Apple crowd and an ESPN audience.
Both teams experienced a significant loss of talent to the NBA after last season, resulting in UK’s John Calipari and KU’s Bill Self looking to gauge how their respective ball clubs react to playing elite level competition. Although Kansas’ lineup is dotted with upperclassmen, most haven’t played the minutes they are now being asked to play, and of course, Calipari is hoping to see his mix of young guns and vets become a cohesive unit focused in on one thing: winning.
An interesting sidebar to this contest is the fact that both Calipari and Self were mentored by coaching great Larry Brown.
Calipari got his start in coaching at Kansas, first as a volunteer assistant, then under Brown as a full-time assistant from 1983-85. Upon Cal’s departure for Pitt in ’85, Brown filled the vacant position with Self, who stayed in Lawrence, Kan., until 1986.
“He’s had a great career,” Coach Cal said Monday. “Everywhere he’s gone he’s won. I have fond memories of Kansas. We lost a national title game where we had the chance to win, missed some free throws, and if it was going to happen to any program who would beat us, I said, ‘Let it be Kansas.’ I had my start at coaching there. I met my wife at Kansas. I had some wonderful times there. It’s a great campus, great tradition, great coaches that were there. Bill has followed in that line.”
In another UK/Self connection: Self left KU in ’86 to go to Oklahoma State – where he played his college ball – and worked under former Kentucky assistant Leonard Hamilton and former UK head coach Eddie Sutton.
Also, current UK assistant (in charge of scouting the opponent) John Robic worked at Kansas under Brown as an assistant from 1987-88.
Meet the Jayhawks
Self and Calipari have something else in common: Both coaches lost tons of talent.
Self saw the brother big man tandem of Markieff and Marcus Morris head to the NBA after their junior seasons, and talented freshman point guard Josh Selby do the same. Additionally, Self lost senior contributors Mario Little and Brady Morningstar as they exhausted their eligibility. If that wasn’t enough, Royce Woolridge opted to transfer, and Self lost his top two incoming recruits to eligibility issues.
But Kansas is Kansas. The Jayhawks always have good players; like the Wildcats, KU doesn’t rebuild they reload. And it all begins with …
Thomas Robinson, a 6-foot-10, 237-pound junior power forward who leads the Jayhawks’ paint patrol. Last season Robinson averaged 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per contest in an average of 14.6 minutes per game, making the big man KU’s most consistent returning scorer and rebounder. Robinson plays with a non-stop motor and is a legitimate rebounding threat. He posted a double-double in KU’s season-opening 100-54 win over Towson, dropping in 18 points and grabbing 11 boards.
Helping Robinson control the paint for KU is talented big man Jeff Withey. A true 7-footer, Withey, weighing in at 235 pounds, is a strong shot-blocker. In 26 games last year – and in only 6.2 minutes per game – he blocked 19 shots. He’s also a solid shooter, making 22 of his 34 shot attempts last year (64.7 percent).
Self does have long experience where it counts the most, though – at point guard, in the form of three-year starter Tyshawn Taylor. Taylor, who stands 6-3 and is unquestionably quick, has led the ‘Hawks in assists each of the last two seasons (4.6 per game last year) and is capable of filling up the hoop with long-range bombs, having made 19-of-50 3-pointers last year (38.0 percent). Versatile 6-6 junior swingman Travis Releford is another perimeter threat in the Jayhawk arsenal. Although Releford scored only 3.6 points per game in 2011, he made 14-of-37 3-pointers during the season.
Rounding out the Kansas backcourt is explosive combo guard Elijah Johnson (6-4, 195-pound junior), who Cat fans might find similar to UK’s Marquis Teague as far as being a serious threat to take his man off the dribble, straight to the rim. But, just as his Jayhawk counterparts, Johnson is a highly skilled 3-point shooter, making 22-of-55 shots from beyond the arc (40.0 percent) last season. Against Towson, Johnson was in a very giving mood, leading the team with eight assists.
Coming off the bench for KU is Loyola Marymount transfer Kevin Young. At 6-8, 185 pounds, Young, as Bill Self describes him, “is very bouncy and very athletic,” and compares very nicely to former KU and current NBA player Julian Wright. In his final season at Marymount, Young averaged 10.7 points and 5.3 boards per game while making 52.7 percent of his shots from the floor. Connor Teahan, a 6-6, 212-pound swing player also comes off the bench for Self. Because of his versatility, the invited walk-on (now on scholarship), provides Kansas with much-needed depth at the shooting guard, small forward and power forward spots. Teahan redshirted last year, but for his career he is a 37.0 percent 3-point shooter (17-46).
Key Cal quotes
On whether this game is a “statement” game …“It may be statement game, but I’m hoping it’s the one they think it’ll be. It could be another statement. I think Kansas, in the same sense, is going to make it a statement game. Kansas is kind of like our team a year ago where everybody thought, ’I like my team and there’s no one out there that’s that good that scares me. We just have to get it together by the end of the year.’ I said it probably 500 times. I imagine, right now, that with Robinson and the big kid (Withey) and the guard play they have, (Bill Self is) saying the same thing. Now you may say, ‘Well, they’re not deep.’ I played six guys last year. I would tell you, he’s got a veteran team of good players and they’re trying to make a statement, too.”
On how hard Robinson will be to defend …
“Very hard. He really does a great job of creating space for himself in transition. He’ll throw himself in a pick-and-roll and create space for himself to get the ball back. Now he’s playing out on the floor some, so he’ll bring it up the floor on rebounds. He’ll shoot the 15-footer. He’s really good. It’s going to be a hard matchup for us. With Terrence Jones, how much do you really want to put him on Robinson? He’s probably too physical for a bunch of our guys.”
On what he wants to see from Anthony Davis ..
“He’s got to be more physical. He’s got to bend over. He can’t be straight up and down. He’s got to stay in a stance. He’s got to stunt more. He can’t stand around. You dunk a ball then run down the court. You’ve got to play the entire possession. When you show him on tape (saying),’You stopped, right there. Look at you standing up and down. It’s OK in that game, but it’s not okay the next game.’ “
Kentucky-Kansas through the years
- UK holds a 19-6 victory advantage over the Jayhawks.
- In their last game, played in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2007, KU came out on top 88-76.
- Kansas has won three games in a row.
- UK’s Kenny Walker scored the most points ever by a Wildcat against the Jayhawks in December of ’84, when he lit up KU for 36 points in the Cats’ 92-89 Freedom Hall victory.
- Wayne Hightower, in December of ’59, scored 33 points in a game against UK, a total that still tops all Jayhawk scorers in the history of the matchup.
- Jim Andrews (Dec. of ’72 in a 77-71 UK win) and Kenny Walker (Dec. of ’84) both grabbed 19 rebounds in their respective games against KU, leading all UK rebounders in series history.
- The most points scored by the ‘Cats in a Kansas game is 115. It came in a UK 30-point win in December of ’69.
- The most points scored by Kansas in the series is 150, as the Jayhawks thrashed UK by 55 points in December of ’89.
- Kentucky holds a 6-3 advantage when both teams are ranked at the time of the contest (as they are this year).
- Kansas was Kentucky’s opponent for the dedication of Rupp Arena on Dec. 11, 1976, a game UK won 90-63.
- From December of ’74 to December ’84, the ‘Cats came out on top in 11straight games.
- In NCAA tourney clashes, UK and KU have both won once.
- Four times Kentucky and Kansas have battled into overtime, and four times the ‘Cats have won.
- And in what certainly qualifies as one of UK’s most unlikely victories, UK beat Kansas in overtime in December of 1978, overcoming a 66-60 deficit with a mere 31 seconds remaining on the clock. Down six, UK’s Dwight ”The Blur” Anderson scored back-to-back buckets, followed by the lightning-quick Anderson stealing the Jayhawk inbounds pass and feeding Kyle Macy for the game-tying jumper. Kansas then called a timeout it didn’t have. Macy wiped his socks and buried the technical toss, sending the ‘Cats home a very happy bunch.