Bill Self says Kansas’ upcoming Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup against fellow blueblood Kentucky is not as important as say, any Big 12 Conference game this time of year.
Still, any time the two programs with the most men’s college basketball victories congregate in Allen Fieldhouse before 16,300 fans and an ESPN audience, the battle of elites has to be considered a major happening in the sports world.
“I think everybody that plays or coaches love games like this,” said Self, KU’s 19th-year coach. His No. 5-ranked Jayhawks (17-2, 6-1 Big 12) will play host to No. 12 Kentucky (16-4, 6-2 SEC) at 5 p.m. Saturday.
“Not many times in the course of a season can you play a game like this and have it not be the most important game of that week and I’m sure Kentucky feels the same way with their conference.”
KU defeated Texas Tech 94-91 in double overtime on Monday at Allen Fieldhouse. Kentucky tripped Mississippi State 82-74 in overtime on Tuesday at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
“This game has been circled on our calendars and I would assume theirs as well for a long time. I’m excited and think our players are excited as well,” Self said.
Self noted that, “it’s maybe a seed-line game (for the NCAA Tournament), I don’t know. It’ll be a fun game. Look at it … right after that it’s at Iowa State (Tuesday), Baylor (home on Feb. 5) and at Texas (Feb. 7). You can’t put so much emphasis on one that we forget about what’s really more important even though I know fans are (excited).”
Kentucky, which is three games ahead of KU on the all-time wins list, will be bringing some of the country’s top players to Lawrence for the game.
Former West Virginia big man Oscar Tshiebwe, a 6-9, 255-pound junior transfer from Republic of Congo, averages 16.3 points and 15.2 rebounds a game. He grabbed a Rupp Arena record 28 rebounds in a 95-60 win over Western Kentucky on Dec. 22.
If he grabs 28 rebounds Saturday, it’d be a record for an opposing player in a single game versus KU. Bob Nordman of Saint Louis had 27 boards versus the Jayhawks on Dec. 22, 1959 in St. Louis.
“He is the best rebounder in the country hands down,” Self said of Tshiebwe, a former Team Loaded (Virginia) AAU teammate of 6-10 KU big man David McCormack.
“I talked to him briefly (this week), just told him Saturday is going to be fun, no brother-in-law ball. We’ll definitely be playing 100%. I’m looking forward to it. He responded with the same type of energy,” McCormack said Friday.
Kentucky freshman TyTy Washington, a 6-3 guard, averages 13.6 points with 83 assists to 32 turnovers. He did not practice Thursday because of an ankle injury and according to Kentucky coach John Calipari is questionable for the game.
Washington dished a school record 17 assists in Kentucky’s 92-77 win over Georgia on Jan. 8 in Lexington. If he totals 17 assists Saturday, it’d be most ever versus KU. Jawun Evans of Oklahoma State had an opponent-record 15 versus KU on March 4, 2017.
“If TyTy is not 100%, this isn’t a game that you play a guy at 80%,” Calipari said Friday as quoted by the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Sahvir Wheeler, a 5-9 junior transfer guard from Georgia, scored 26 points with eight assists and four steals in a 98-69 win over North Carolina on Dec. 18 in Las Vegas. He had a career-high 14 assists in an 86-52 win over North Florida on Nov. 26 in Lexington. He averages 11.1 points with 124 assists to 55 turnovers.
“TyTy is terrific. They’ve had really good guards (in past) but Sahvir is different from a speed standpoint,” Self said. “Sahvir is the best 94-foot player in the country hands down.”
And former Davidson guard Kellan Grady, a 6-5 senior who averages 12.1 points per game, hit seven threes in a 92-48 win over High Point on Dec. 31 in Lexington. He’s made 57 of 132 threes for 43.2%. If he hit seven threes Saturday, it’d be four off the record in a game against KU. Randy Rutherford of OSU hit 11 on March 5, 1995 in Allen, while Lindsey Hunter made 11 vs. the Jayhawks on Dec. 27, 1992 in Hawaii.
“There are going to be some really good individual players on the court tomorrow,” Self said Friday.
“We think we are pretty good offensively. They’ve scored more points than us (UK averages 82.2 points a game to KU’s 81.5 ppg). I think it’ll be more upbeat than last year,” Self added, referring to KU’s 65-62 win over UK in Indianapolis, a game played in an empty arena because of COVID. “I don’t think that will be the score after 40 minutes tomorrow.”
Other Kentucky contributors include 6-3 former Creighton guard Davion Mintz (8.6 ppg), 6-7 forward Keion Brooks (10.2 ppg) as well as 6-9 Jacob Toppin (5.8 ppg) and 6-9 Daimion Collins (3.4 ppg). Toppin (ankle) and Collins (undisclosed) missed Thursday’s practice, Calipari said.
It’s unlikely, but possible Shaedon Sharpe, last year’s No. 3-ranked high school recruit who reclassified at a late date and arrived at Kentucky earlier this month, could make his college debut at KU. Calipari told reporters Friday he didn’t think Sharpe (6-6 shooting guard, Dream City Christian, Glendale, Arizona) was ready yet to play in a game, but Sharpe did have a game jersey under his warmups Tuesday night at home vs. Mississippi State.
“I’d rather not right now only because I think he needs more time to elevate his intensity (and) his fight,” Calipari said. “All the stuff you need.”
Of Saturday’s game, Calipari said as quoted by the Lexington Herald-Leader, “This is the ultimate challenge. We have to run our stuff better than they do their stuff because it’s very similar.”
Self and Calipari are 5-5 in head-to-head meetings.
“My personal relationship with Cal is very good. We talked for a long time the other day, text back and forth. We’re actually doing a fundraiser tonight together trying to raise some money for some different initiatives,” Self said. “I think that we have a solid relationship. He does go about his business. And I totally respect how he does it and how good he is at it. We go about ours probably a little differently. The thing about it is what you have to remember it’s not coach versus coach. And it’s not player versus player. It’s Kansas versus Kentucky. And that’s something I think makes a game like this so special. I think everybody involved in the game directly on the court 100% understands that,” Self added.
KU will travel to Iowa State on Tuesday while Kentucky’s next game is at home Wednesday versus Vanderbilt.