Kansas will carry the nation’s No. 1 ranking into Saturday’s game against Villanova at the Wells Fargo Center, but there’s nothing different about that.
The Wildcats (8-2), ranked 18th, will be playing the Jayhawks (9-1) for the fourth time dating to the regional final of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, and this will be the third time their opponent takes the court as the nation’s top team.
The Jayhawks entered the 2016 tournament that way but lost, 64-58, to a gritty defensive effort by Villanova in Louisville, paving the Wildcats’ way to a Final Four and a national championship. The Jayhawks were also No. 1 in last December’s matchup at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., and held on for a 74-71 win over ‘Nova, then ranked 17th.
That game came eight months after another NCAA meeting. The Wildcats had the higher ranking, No. 2 in the nation, when they entered the 2018 tournament and swept to a second national title with all six wins by double digits, including a 95-79 victory over Kansas in the national semifinals.
Now the 'Cats get another chance at playing the No. 1 team, as well as giving coach Jay Wright a reading on his young team in its final game before the start of Big East play on Dec. 30.
“Given the inexperience of this team, I think we’re on a good path,” Wright said Thursday. “I feel good about where we are. The beauty of getting the opportunity to play a No. 1 team is that you get to see realistically where you are against the best. It’s something you can hold on to for the rest of the year because they’re not going to get any worse. They’re going to be a great team all year.
“You can always look back on that even if you have some success, and see where you are against the best, and then you can realistically prepare for the best teams in your league when you’re playing a team like this.”
However, the difficulty in matching up with Kansas is its balance. The Jayhawks shoot nearly 53% overall, including 37.3% from three-point range, and have limited the opposition to 38% overall, 30% from the arc. They are able to get up on their men defensively knowing that 7-foot Udoka Azubuike is waiting in the paint if someone closes in on the basket.
“You can’t say we’ve got to take away one thing, and that’s why they’re No. 1,” Wright said. “They just have tremendous balance. They can play big, but they’ll also play with four guards. They can play both ways, and they’re very effective both ways.”
Kansas coach Bill Self has the same respectful opinion of the Wildcats, especially their three-point shooting. He said the Jayhawks must do a better job of limiting attempts.
“I don’t believe that we’ve done a good job of running teams off the line like we should, even though I think we’ve done a decent job guarding it,” he said. “But I feel we can do a better job of running guys off the line and make them play inside the arc a little bit more than what we have. Villanova can really shoot the three, so we’ve got to do a better job there."
At halftime, the Wildcats will retire the jerseys of two former players: forward Jim Washington and guard Allen Ray.