Champions Classic Game Preview and Predictions: Kansas Jayhawks vs. Kentucky Wildcats

Draft talent will be on display in Indianapolis showdown

The Champions Classic finale between Kentucky and Kansas is sure to be a scouting bonanza even if John Calipari and Bill Self are trying to figure out how the pieces fit together.

 

Dozens of NBA scouts are expected to be Indianapolis for a game that may contain the most pro prospects on one floor this season — Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and the Harrison twins for Kentucky, Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre and Wayne Selden for Kansas.

 

Many of them will end up draft picks, including a handful in the lottery, but their ceiling as teams in college, expectedly, remains a work in progress.

 

During the weekend, Self had plenty of criticisms of a team that beat UC Santa Barbara, a solid mid-major, 69-59 in the opener. Calipari could say the same of watching his talented team needing a second-half rally to beat Buffalo.

 

Kansas vs. Kentucky

 

Site: Indianapolis, Bankers Life Fieldhouse

Time: 9 p.m., Eastern

TV: ESPN

 

What’s on the line for Kansas

 

Freshmen making their mark. Kansas’ top two freshmen — Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre — are as highly regarded as any group of rookies in the country. Both can further establish themselves with strong performances against the No.1 team in the country. In Chicago a year ago, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins outdueled Duke’s Jabari Parker late in a 94-83 win. Joel Embiid came off the bench for only two points (with seven rebounds and five assists). Wiggins and Embiid were top three picks in the NBA draft — while Parker was No. 2.

 

What’s on the line for Kentucky

A break from last season. Kentucky fans must have had a fair amount of trepidation watching the Wildcats trail Buffalo by five at halftime. The Wildcats came back to win 71-52, but there has to be a sense of “here we go again” with a team that struggles to play like a team loaded with talent. Kentucky lost to Michigan State in this event last season, a harbinger for a non-conference season that included losses to Baylor and North Carolina. A win over a fellow top-five team would ease some of the nerves for Big Blue Nation.

You’ll tune in to watch: Kentucky’s front line

 

Calipari’s plans to rotate his forwards like a hockey line change will be put to the test. Against Buffalo, Karl-Anthony Towns started but played 10 minutes. Trey Lyles (20 minutes) and Dakari Johnson (26) came off the bench to play more than twice that. Kansas, meanwhile, is coming of a game in which it picked up 13 offensive rebounds against UCSB, six from Perry Ellis alone.

 

Pivotal player: Frank Mason, Kansas

 

Kansas’ backcourt has thinned with the departures of Naadir Tharpe and Conner Frankamp, leaving Mason as one of the only point guards on the roster. That said, freshman Devonte Graham came off the bench for 14 points against UCSB. For a program that’s enjoyed so much success as Kansas, it’s a surprise to see point guard not be a dominant position for several seasons.

 

Biggest question: Who hits the big shots on the perimeter?

 

Self was displeased with Kansas’ play on the perimeter against UCSB, and who can blame him at 2-of-10 from 3-point range. Wayne Selden alone was 2-of-8 from the field. Kansas will need balance if Kentucky’s frontline is balanced as expected. Kentucky’s Harrisons, of course, know a bit about hitting big long-range shots.

 

Predictions

 

David Fox: Kentucky 78-71

Mitch Light: Kansas 74-72

Nathan Rush: Kentucky 76-72

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