LEXINGTON, Ky. – Within the thrilling matchup that is No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 4 Kentucky, there is a tantalizing collision of elite guards coming Saturday night at Rupp Arena. A strong argument can be made for the Jayhawks’ Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham or the Wildcats’ De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk as the best backcourt tandem in college basketball.
“It makes for a great matchup,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Thursday. “There’s other matchups that’ll be key, but certainly I think most eyes will be on those four guys.”
Mason is averaging 19.9 points, 5.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds. Graham is avearing 13.7 points, 4.7 assists and 3.0 rebounds. Combined, they’re shooting 45 percent from 3-point range. Fox and Monk have their own gaudy numbers – the former chasing down Tyler Ulis’ school record for assists and Monk scoring more than any freshman in America.
But there’s the big difference: both of Kentucky’s star guards are freshmen, while Graham is a junior and Mason a senior.
“You’ve got the prototypical experience against youth,” Self said, “and the youth is lottery pick talent, without question, that has shown that they can play at the very highest level and certainly play at a level that is better on certain days than anybody else in the country has played. Then you’ve got some guys on our side that are pretty consistent and tough and solid and been through a lot of wars together.”
And that’s where Wildcats coach John Calipari has reason to worry. His guys’ youth has begun to show in the last few games. Monk attempted 13 3-pointers – missing 10 – in UK’s upset loss at Knoxville on Tuesday night.
“What I don’t want to have our guys do is get into the one-on-one stuff,” Calipari said. “We’ve slipped a little bit in our ball movement and creating shots for each other and kind of slipped into, ‘Let me go get something here, and if I can’t, let me try to pass it now.’ So let’s hope that my team doesn’t get into that, but I will tell you that these are veteran (Kansas) guards. They’re crafty. Watching the tape from a year ago, they’re not going to make a whole lot of mistakes that are unforced. If you leave them open, if you lose sight, it’s three.”
He is hopeful that Fox, Monk and sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe, who is on a three-game skid offensively, learned something from their latest defeat. Calipari went on a rant about selflessness in Knoxville, which wasn’t a concern for this group until recently.
“It was only two weeks ago (people said), ‘Man, they play hard, they dive on the floor for loose balls, they scramble defensively, they really help each other. Man, they share the ball. They’re fast. They give it to the open man,’ ” the coach said. “Well, over a two-week period, that has slipped and slipped and slipped. That’s what happens to young teams. Sometimes they get intoxicated by some wins and you think, ‘I can do it the way I used to do it,’ and you take some L’s.”