LEXINGTON, Ky. — The most exciting matchup when second-ranked Kansas visits fourth-ranked Kentucky on Saturday is in the backcourt, where Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham will lock horns with De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Flip a coin on which of those is a better pair. The game could turn, however, in two areas where these teams are not so evenly matched.
“Everyone’s going to want to talk about the backcourts,” ESPN analyst and former coach Seth Greenberg said, “but I think there are two other interesting matchups in the game: The Bam (Adebayo) matchup, making Landon Lucas defend … and then the matchup on Josh Jackson, which will be challenging for Kentucky. Those are two matchups that people need to watch.”
Adebayo, the Wildcats’ 6-foot-10, 260-pound freshman star, could be a nightmare for the Jayhawks, whose lack of depth and dependable defense in the paint was exposed in a loss to West Virginia on Tuesday night. The Mountaineers scored on 16 dunks or layups, the former being Bam’s specialty.
Whereas Kansas lost its most imposing big man – 7-foot, 280-pound freshman Udoka Azubuike – to a wrist injury after 11 games, and then 6-10 forward Carlton Bragg to a suspension this week, Kentucky has watched Adebayo make steady progress toward total domination inside. He’s hit 82 percent from the field over the last five games and scored 39 points on 12-of-14 shooting in the last two.
“Oh, God,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said, “he’s a monster. He’s continuing to get better and better. Not allowing him to catch it at two or three feet (is key), because then he does such a good job of going over and through you to get to the basket.”
Lucas, a 6-10 senior averaging 7.3 points and 8 rebounds, but he’s not nearly Adebayo’s equal. And he’s basically the only body Kansas can throw at Adebayo.
“So obviously establishing Bam has got to be a priority for Kentucky when they’re not in transition,” Greenberg said.
Likewise, Kansas will likely look to exploit its one obvious edge in personnel: Jackson against whoever the Wildcats throw at him. The smooth, 6-foot-8 freshman was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2016 and is projected to be picked No. 4 overall in the next NBA draft by DraftExpress.com.
“They got a lot of bullets in the gun,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Jackson is a breakdown kind of player that can go get his.”
He can play on the wing or as a power forward and does a little bit of everything, averaging 15.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks.
“It’s a bad matchup for (Derek) Willis and I think it’s a bad matchup for (Wenyen) Gabriel,” Greenberg said of the two 6-9 forwards who can play the three or four spots. He figures Kentucky could throw 6-3 guard Isaiah Briscoe at Jackson, but that might be literally too tall an order – and disrupt the Cats’ transition offense. “I think you’ve got to challenge Derek Willis. What Willis did the other day against South Carolina, he’s got to be held accountable to that level of intensity.”
But even on his best day, Willis will struggle to stop an elite talent like Jackson. The same is true of Kansas’ underwhelming big men against Adebayo. It very well could be those mismatches, not the sexier guard matchups, that decide this battle of bluebloods.