Quick scout: A prediction for the KU-Kentucky game

Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo (3) takes an off balance shot while defended by Utah Valley’s Isaac Neilson (22) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, in Lexington, Ky. | James Crisp | AP
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By Jesse Newell jnewell@kcstar.com

Before every KU men’s basketball game, The Star’s Jesse Newell previews the Jayhawks’ upcoming opponent with a scouting report and prediction.

Tuesday’s game: No. 7 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Kansas, 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, United Center, Chicago (ESPN)

Opponent’s record: 2-0

KenPom (Ken Pomeroy) Ranking: 5

Point spread: KU by 4 12.

All statistics from KenPom.com, Hoop-Math.com and Synergy Sports Technology. KenPom stats also only include Division I competition.

3 Strengths

▪ Rim protection: Kentucky is the fifth-tallest team according to KenPom’s numbers, and unsurprisingly, that’s helped out the team’s defense on the back end. The Wildcats rank 28th in block rate and also have swatted 23 percent of opponents’ shots at the rim.

▪ Transition offense: Both KU coach Bill Self and guard Devonté Graham spoke of Kentucky’s athleticism, and that is something that typically plays well in the open court. The Wildcats rank in the 71st percentile, according to Synergy, in transition situations, and one would think that number will only improve as the sample increases.

▪ Converting inside: Kentucky has made 69 percent of its shots at the rim, which is well above the NCAA average (60 percent). This is another area where it helps to be both tall and athletic.

3 Weaknesses

▪ Shot selection: A whopping 48 percent of Kentucky’s shots this year have been from mid-range, which is the least efficient shot in basketball. Not only that, the Wildcats have made just 29 percent of those tries. It’s no surprise that the team’s offense hasn’t been great through two games.

▪ Perimeter defense: Kentucky, which will play some zone, has been slow on closeouts, with 41 percent of the shots against it coming from three-point range. That’s not ideal for this particular matchup, as KU will fire away from deep if left open.

▪ Three-point shooting: On the flip side, the Wildcats have attempted threes on just 20 percent of their shots, which ranks as one of the lowest marks nationally. Either the team doesn’t have enough shooters, or players are getting a red light early from coach John Calipari.

3 Players to Watch

6-foot-5 guard Hamidou Diallo (No. 3)

Hamidou_Diallo_2017_18_RGB

Plus: Go-to guy offensively

Plus: Efficient player who almost never turns it over

Plus: Team’s best passer so far

Plus: Can shoot from outside

Minus: Doesn’t get to free-throw line often

Minus: Can fall in love with mid-range jumpers; 59 percent of shots are from there

6-foot-7 forward P.J. Washington (No. 25)

Washington_PJ_2017_18_RGB

Plus: Does great job of drawing contact inside

Plus: Above-average shooter at rim and in mid-range in tiny sample

Plus: Strong defensive rebounder

Minus: Extremely turnover prone

Minus: Synergy’s logs list him as a “poor” defender

6-foot-9 forward Kevin Knox (No. 5)

Knox_Kevin_2017_18_RGB

Plus: Has Calipari’s trust while leading the team in minutes

Plus: Gets to line often and has made 9 of 10 there

Plus: Versatile player who ranks well in steals and defensive rebounds

Minus: Has been an awful shooter so far, making 30 percent of his shots at the rim and 13 percent in mid-range

Prediction

The Vegas line opened at KU minus-2 and quickly moved a couple points, meaning the public appears to be hesitant to bet the Wildcats after a pair of close home victories to start the season.

The good news for Kentucky is this: It has the ability to shut down one of KU’s best offensive weapons, which is transition. The Wildcats are fast, tall and athletic, so it should be difficult for the Jayhawks to get the uncontested shots that are often available against nonconference opponents.

Having said that, the fear for Kentucky has to be getting out to KU’s shooters. The team has done a poor job with that while playing man defense, and a zone likely isn’t going to fix the problem, as KU could potentially shoot over the top of that as well.

For the Jayhawks, getting points inside could be tough. The Jayhawks don’t have great get-to-the-basket drivers like Frank Mason and Josh Jackson were last year, and Udoka Azubuike is still at a stage where he’ll get most of his points with help from others. There’s also the risk of foul trouble against Kentucky’s huge front line, and even one player getting two first-half whistles could drastically change how coach Bill Self is able to play.

I see this as a close one. Kentucky might still be finding itself with college basketball’s youngest roster in at least a decade, but if the Wildcats shoot a bit better Tuesday while bringing their strong interior defense, there’s no reason they can’t be in it late.

Kansas 74, Kentucky 73

Jesse’s pick to cover spread: Kentucky

Hawk to Rock

KU will need Svi Mykhailiuk’s three-point shooting against Kentucky. The senior guard should have teammates getting him opportunities with kickouts, and if he can confidently step into those shots and make them, he has the potential for a big night.

Last game prediction: Kansas 93, Tennessee State 60 (Actual: KU 92-56)

2017-18 record vs. spread: 1-0

Last four seasons’ record vs. spread: 59-43-3

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell


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