LAWRENCE — In the eyes of Bill Self, the timing of the annual SEC/Big 12 Challenge isn’t exactly ideal.
That said, if ninth-ranked Kansas basketball (16-3) is to have an aside in the heart of conference play, a showdown with fellow blue-blood and budding rival Kentucky is a best-case scenario for the longtime Jayhawk coach.
“Players get excited too, but there are certain games that coaches get excited for as well,” Self said ahead of his team’s 5 p.m. Saturday clash with the eighth-ranked Wildcats at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. “This will be one of those games that will be even more fun preparing for and watching and that kind of stuff. I’m sure it is for them too.”
UK and KU stand as college basketball’s winningest programs at 2,278 and 2,264 victories, respectively, with the Wildcats holding a 22-9 advantage in the all-time series with the Jayhawks. Self’s squad has defeated counterpart John Calipari’s group in three straight campaigns, though, including a 65-61 outcome in last season’s Champions Classic.
That setting — the annual early-season tournament pitting four of the sport’s top programs against one another, with Duke and Michigan State also in the mix — is far preferable to the late-January interruption of league play that is the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, Self indicated.
“To me, it’s not a great game. It’s not as important as playing Texas,” Self said. “But, in the moment, it’s as big as any game that we’ll have. And to our players, they’ll feel that same way too. Breaking up your conference season to do this, I don’t know any coach (who) would say they are a huge fan of it, but it’s great exposure for our league (and) it’s great exposure for the SEC.”
And, depending on the outcome, it could also serve as a useful midseason jolt of energy to a group tied atop the Big 12 standings yet one still honing its identity.
“The negatives (of the timing) are it comes at a bad time of the season. It’s not a great game for Kentucky and it’s not a great game for us,” Self said. “But, it’s a great game because to the kids, we get a chance to play Kentucky. And to their kids, they probably feel the same thing about playing us. There’s a natural rivalry there, even though it doesn’t go back as many contests as what you may think. But when you talk about the two winningest programs of all time, there’s a built-in, natural rivalry.
"Adolph Rupp played at Kansas. There are so many things that intertwine the schools.”
The Wildcats (15-3) enter on a five-game winning streak, with two of their defeats this season coming by a combined three-point margin. The other, a 118-84 drubbing at the hands of Duke in the season opener at the Champions Classic, damaged the national reputation of the preseason No. 2-ranked squad.
UK has slowly but surely rehabilitated its image since that drubbing.
“They are a team that can win a national championship,” Self said. “I know everybody thought that before the season, and then you have one game where the attention shifts, and they've done it the right way. They've grinded their way back to where they are right now and that's being one of the best teams in the country."
Freshman guard Keldon Johnson paces the Wildcat offense at 14.6 points per game, one of four UK players averaging more than 12.3 points. Fellow freshman Ashton Hagans (7.3 points, 3.9 assists, 2.3 steals per game) has developed into “a premiere guard,” said Self, adding he’s sort of like the Wildcats’ version of Marcus Garrett.
While the faces have changed — they always seem to at Kentucky — KU only needs to look back two years for a blueprint for winning at Rupp Arena. Those Jayhawks earned a 79-73 victory in Lexington, with Frank Mason (21 points) and Josh Jackson (20 points, 10 rebounds) leading the way.
The faces have also changed at Kansas, and Self indicated his recent success against the Wildcats will play no role in Saturday’s outcome.
“Our guys will be more amped up, even though those other guys were too (two years ago), but those other guys were probably more prepared to control the emotion of it than these guys will be,” Self said. “That’s part of growing up though, and it’s OK.”
NO. 9 KANSAS AT NO. 8 KENTUCKY
Tipoff: 5 p.m. Saturday, Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
TV/Radio: ESPN/KWIC-FM (99.3)
TJC watch party: Lazy Toad
Next: KU at Texas, 6 p.m. Tuesday, Frank Erwin Center, Austin, Texas
NO. 9 KANSAS (16-3)
P Player ... Ht. ... Cl. ... Pts. ... Reb.
F Dedric Lawson ... 6-9 ... Jr. ... 19.5 ... 10.9
G Marcus Garrett ... 6-5 ... So. ... 7.7 ... 3.4
G Lagerald Vick ... 6-5 ... Sr. ... 15.0 ... 3.9
G Quentin Grimes ... 6-5 ... Fr. ... 8.2 ... 2.4
G Devon Dotson ... 6-2 ... Fr. ... 10.9 ... 3.3*
NO. 8 KENTUCKY (15-3)
P Player ... Ht. ... Cl. ... Pts. ... Reb.
F Reid Travis ... 6-8 ... Sr. ... 12.6 ... 6.7
F PJ Washington ... 6-8 ... So. ... 12.3 ... 7.8
G Keldon Johnson ... 6-6 ... Fr. ... 14.6 ... 5.1
G Tyler Herro ... 6-5 ... Fr. ... 13.7 ... 4.3
G Ashton Hagans ... 6-3 ... Fr. ... 7.3 ... 3.9*
* — Assists