SEC/Big 12 Challenge: Kansas at Kentucky

SEC/Big 12 Challenge: Kansas at Kentucky

Kentucky Wildcats vs. Kansas Jayhawks

Line: Kentucky -2.5

Total: 140

Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Kentucky

When: Saturday, 1/28 at 8:00 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

No. 9 Kansas will be hoping to snap its surprising three-game skid when it faces surging Kentucky on Saturday night at Rupp Arena during the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

The defending national champions got off to a 16-1 (5-0 Big 12) start to the season, but they have since suffered three straight losses to top-20 teams. Their latest setback came on the road against No. 17 Baylor on Monday, as the Bears notched a 75-69 win as 2-point favorites. Kansas has now gone winless against the spread in five straight games.

Kentucky has been able to turn its season around after going 10-6 (1-3 SEC) through its first 16 games, opening its current four-game winning streak with a huge upset win at then-No. 5 Tennessee two weeks ago. The Wildcats have since added wins over Georgia, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt to establish themselves as an at-large team in most NCAA Tournament projections…for now.

DraftKings opened Kentucky as a 2-point favorite on Friday afternoon—the Wildcats rolled to an 80-62 win as 5-point road underdog at Allen Fieldhouse last January. That game went ‘under’ the total of 151.5, and it would have barely gone ‘under’ Saturday night’s opener of 142.5.

Most books have adjusted UK to -2.5, while the total has dipped down to 140 points.

Kansas is desperately seeking answers as it is on just its third three-game losing streak during coach Bill Self’s 20 seasons at the helm. The Jayhawks have not lost four straight games since the 1980s, but they are in danger of hitting that mark following their loss to Baylor on Monday.

“There is time to be reactive in a negative way if your team’s not doing well,” Self said. “This is not one of our times. We have gotten beat, and granted we got beat by a team that was projected to win the league tonight, that’s really good. And they went through the same crap we’re going through right now…Our league is that good. It’s going to be a grind.”

The Jayhawks have been getting off to slow starts of late, trailing by double digits in the first half of their last three games. They trailed Baylor by 13 points eight minutes into the game and were down by 20 points midway through the first half against TCU last Saturday.

Point guard Dajuan Harris has scored five total points in the last four games, shooting 2 of 18 from the floor during that stretch. Big man KJ Adams is also slumping, scoring eight total points in the last two games after reaching double figures in 11 straight games.

He will be tasked with slowing down one of the best post players in the country on Saturday night in Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe. The 6-foot-9 senior is averaging 16.6 points and 13.9 rebounds per game, playing a critical role in Kentucky’s recent turnaround. He had 37 points and 24 rebounds in an 85-71 win against Georgia last Tuesday.

The Wildcats also have several capable outside shooters in Antonio Reeves (39.7), Cason Wallace (39.6) and CJ Fredrick (35.4). They rank just outside the top 40 nationally in 3-point percentage (36.9) as a team and are the nation’s top offensive rebounding unit.

“This is a different Kentucky team than the one that was playing a month ago because they all can shoot,” Self said. “They will have three guys out there, sometimes four, who can make threes at all times. Then you are playing around a big guy who is probably the best big man in the country, certainly the best rebounder in the country.”

Despite Kansas’s recent struggles, it still has star forward Jalen Wilson, who scored 38 points in an overtime loss to then-No. 13 Kansas State last Tuesday and is averaging 21.4 points per game. Freshman guard Gradey Dick is adding 14.9 points and 5.2 rebounds, while senior guard Kevin McCullar Jr. is chipping in 10.4 points and 7.3 rebounds.

Kansas has gone ‘under’ in six of its last nine games, but Kentucky has gone ‘over’ in seven of its last 10 games. These teams have cashed the ‘under’ in five straight head-to-head meetings.

The pick: Kentucky -2.5

It would have been interesting to see what the line would have been if this matchup had been three weeks ago, as these teams have been trending in completely different directions since then. As much as I want to back Kansas as a road underdog in this spot, confidence is a huge aspect of handicapping a college basketball game. The Jayhawks have been getting down by double digits in the first half of every game lately, and it’s very easy to find yourself in an early hole at Rupp Arena. They rank just inside the top 200 nationally in defensive rebounding, so I have some concerns about their ability to slow down Tshiebwe and a Kentucky offense that leads the country in offensive boards. The Wildcats are also playing with some newfound confidence and are hot from the perimeter, making them a team I want to back at home when they can feed off the crowd (and maybe the refs, too…).

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