John Calipari have always welcomed the challenge of playing the best teams in the nation as a maturity test for his teenage teams. The annual State Farm Champions Classic is typically the first of these major tests each season.
Two years ago, it didn’t go quite as planned: Kentucky got boat raced by Zion Williamson, R.J. Barret and a loaded Duke team by over 30 points. Last years’ experience was much more enjoyable for Kentucky fans, as Tyrese Maxey buried a three at MSG to beat Michigan St. It propelled the team to the top spot in the AP poll, and had fans oozing over the team’s potential. For all of seven days, before the unspeakable happened.
The now-No. 20 Cats have already suffered their first loss this time around, falling to Richmond on Sunday afternoon. Even when trying to spin the Spider defeat into a positive, it’s hard to get by how bad the team performed, especially when Calipari said they “looked like an organized basketball team” after the Morehead State win. 36% from the field is not good; neither is 0-of-10 from three. But the biggest issue the Cats have to fix if they want to have a serious chance against Bill Self and Kansas tonight is turnovers.
Kentucky coughed up the ball 21 times in the Richmond game, which led to 22 points. The ability to control the ball against possibly the best defender in college basketball in Marcus Garrett will be integral to a winning formula.
Just like the Cats, the No. 7 Jayhawks are also 1-1. Their one loss though, came to No. 1 Gonzaga, against whom they racked up 90 points in their season debut. Garrett and fellow upperclassmen Ochai Agbaji showed out in that game, scoring 22 and 17 respectively.
Kansas defeated St. Joseph’s by 20 the next day on the back of sophomore Christian Braun, who scored 30 points on 10-of-13 shooting.
It’s a small sample size, but the Jayhawk offense has been rolling. They have shot nearly 45% from three so far. Kentucky’s length should help them handle this threat, but players will have to make sure they maximize their reach to get opposing shooters uncomfortable.
Cal and the Wildcats know that the Richmond loss will mean little once it comes time for the postseason. Tonight presents a real shot at a statement win of their own. Already experiencing defeat should allow this 4.5-point pup to embrace the underdog role.
Tip-off between the Cats and Jayhawks is set for 9:30 on ESPN.