Blue Bloods Kansas and Kentucky Each Desperately Need a Win in Marquee Matchup

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 28, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 18: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks handles the ball against Tyler Ulis #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the State Farm Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on November 18, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kentucky defeated Kansas 72-40. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

It has been said that the first step is always the hardest, but the 4,366th step won't come very easily when the No. 4 Kansas Jayhawks host the No. 20 Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night.

Kentucky enters the game as the winningest school in college basketball history with 2,196 wins, but Kansas isn't far behind in second place with 2,169 W's.

Most All-Time Wins in College Basketball
TeamWins (through 1/27/16)
Kentucky Wildcats2,196
Kansas Jayhawks2,169
North Carolina Tar Heels2,158
Duke Blue Devils2,077
Syracuse Orange1,936

Most of those are rooted in ancient history, but you should know better than to simply chalk up that success to longevity.

In fact, over the past seven years (including 2015-16), Kentucky leads all teams with 206 wins and Kansas is No. 3 with 199 victories. The only other team with more than 191 is Duke (200), and the Blue Devils needed two national championships just to keep pace with the Wildcats and Jayhawks.

And yet, they'll both enter the Phog on Saturday in dire need of a win to keep their respective fanbases from hitting DEFCON 1 on the panic meter.

Please do not even try to interpret that last sentence as "The loser will be on the NCAA tournament bubble," but making the Big Dance isn't an achievement for these teams any more than simply making the NFL playoffs is considered a job well done for the New England Patriots. Anything short of entering the month of March as one of the favorites to reach the Final Four is a colossal disappointment for these schools, but the loser of this one will certainly enter February with more questions than answers.

Hell, they both already have way more questions than answers.

Both teams spent time at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 earlier in the season, but Kansas is currently the 17th-best team as rated by KenPom.com, and Kentucky is 20th in those rankings. Never mind the Final Four—the Wildcats and Jayhawks would be lucky to even reach the Sweet 16 at this point.

Kentucky has looked considerably better as of late with Derek Willis featuring more heavily in the mix. (Who saw that sentence coming before the season?) But how much do wins over Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Missouri really matter when none of them are expected to make the NCAA tournament? The Wildcats need a statement win to undo the damage of recent losses to Ohio State, LSU and Auburn, and there aren't many such opportunities remaining in SEC play.

And while a Kansas loss wouldn't directly jeopardize its streak of 11 consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles, it would snap a 34-game home winning streak and would be the first time the Jayhawks lost four out of six games since the first month of the 2005-06 seasona season that ended with the infamous first-round loss to Bradley.

Thankfully, this isn't soccer or the 2002 MLB All-Star game, so we know that either Kansas or Kentucky is going to score a win that could positively alter the trajectory of its season.

At first glance, Kansas looks like the obvious favorite.

Dec 22, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self talks to guard Wayne Selden Jr. (1) during the first half against the San Diego State Aztecs at Viejas Arena at Aztec Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The Jayhawks are the higher-ranked team, and they're playing in a venue where they have won 200 out of 209 games under Bill Self. Not to mention, Kentucky has lost four of its last six games away from home. Moreover, Kansas is the sixth-best three-point shooting team in the country, and Kentucky has hit at least 40 percent of its three-point attempts in a game just four times all season.

However, that arc hasn't been much of a friend to Kansas as of late. The Jayhawks shot worse than 30 percent from downtown in three of the last four games, making a combined 26-of-84 (31.0 percent) during that stretch while allowing opponents to hit 33-of-75 (44.0 percent). And Kentucky has one of the stingiest three-point defenses in the country, allowing opponents to shoot 31.8 percent on just 5.2 made triples per game.

In other words, expect this game to quickly turn into trench warfare, which should be good news for Kentucky, given Kansas' well-documented struggle to figure out who to put in the post with Perry Ellis.

Cheick Diallo played 21 productive minutes against TCU but did not play seven days later against Texas. Hunter Mickelson started 10 straight games from Dec. 9 through Jan. 16, but he hasn't even gotten off the bench in the last two contests. Self has been riding Landen Lucas more often as of late, but that could change at a moment's notice.

"A lot of times, we don't know who to play," Self said during the Jan. 11 Big 12 coaches teleconference.

Conversely, Kentucky's frontcourt situation is as stable as it has been all season.

Derek Willis in one of his limited-minutes appearances back in November.
Derek Willis in one of his limited-minutes appearances back in November.Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

According to Kyle Tucker of the Courier-Journal, John Calipari told reporters after an exhibition game against Ottawa in early November, "I want to play Derek Willis. But he's going to have to take minutes from somebody. Whether I want to play him or not, does anyone give him minutes?"

It took a few months for him to give enough effort in practices to earn that playing timeand for other frontcourt options to prove they couldn't handle as much as they were gettingbut the junior forward has averaged 30 minutes per game over the last four contests, drastically mitigating the negative snowball effect of fouls called against Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee.

Kentucky's six leaders in minutes played all received a 5-star rating from 247 Sports, but the fate of the Wildcats—not just in this game, but for the rest of the season, reallymight rest in the hands of a 3-star stretch 4. That's pretty much the perfect microcosm of how outrageously unpredictable this season has been.

As far as pointless predictions go, give me Kansas by a deuce with Ellis leading both teams in scoring, but not a bone in my body would be surprised if Kentucky pulls off the upset in the best nonconference game of the 2015-16 season.

Unless the Wildcats win because of a monster game from Skal Labissiere.

That would break the Internet.

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.


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