Kansas and Kentucky squared off back November in an event called the Champion’s Classic. And while the irony of the rematch coming in, quite literally, the “Champion’s Classic” isn’t lost on me, there is a reason that the discussion of tonight’s title bout has steered clear of talk about the first meeting.
Both the Jayhawks and the Wildcats are completely different teams than they were back on Nov. 15, when Kentucky won 75-65.
The biggest difference for Kentucky is Marquis Teague. That day at Madison Square Garden was Teague’s second collegiate game, and it looked like it in the first half. The freshman point guard turned the ball over six times in the first 20 minutes as Kentucky needed a spurt to close the half tied with Kansas. The second half was a different story. UK got out into transition and used a 29-12 run over the first 10 minutes of the half to take a 17-point lead.
Teague was a different player in the second half. He effectively got Kentucky’s athletes the ball in transition. His biggest issues early in the year were the turnovers and poor decisions that came with Kentucky’s faster pace. Coach John Calipari slowed things down in January and February, but Teague has gotten to the point where he can play a more up-tempo style. And while it took another three months for him to become that different player on a consistent basis, that change is one of the biggest reasons Kentucky has gone from a really talented team to one that is borderline unbeatable.
For the Jayhawks, the biggest change is also in the backcourt, and it’s not necessarily the fact that Tyshawn Taylor has spent more time as the good Tyshawn Taylor than the bad Tyshawn Taylor. Elijah Johnson has emerged as a legitimate No. 3 scoring threat, finally showing the country why he was a hyped recruit when he joined the Kansas program in 2009.
Johnson is averaging 15.4 ppg and shooting 44.4 percent from beyond the arc over the last seven games. That’s significant because Kentucky controlled Thomas Robinson in the first game by sending two and three players at him on every post touch, daring Taylor and Johnson to try and beat them from the perimeter. It worked. Robinson struggled and Taylor and Johnson combined to shoot 6-24 from the floor.
I doubt those two will go 6-24 from the floor again, which means that Kentucky is going to have to find a different way to guard Robinson.