Inside College Hoops: Kentucky can complete comeback at Kansas

Kentucky was ranked No. 1 early, mostly because of a recruiting class that looked great on paper. But the first-year prospects struggled from the start. So the losses stacked up.

And, of course, I’m talking about two years ago.

You remember that season, right?

The Wildcats limped to a 15-5 record through 20 games, dropped to 18th in the AP poll, and Big Blue Nation, as they call it, was in a frenzy. But, at some point, those talented young players turned into a talented cohesive team. Everything started clicking. Next thing you know, Kentucky was back in the Final Four, competing for another national title.

And is it possible this season is on the same sort of trajectory?

Like that season, Kentucky was, this season, also ranked No. 1 early, mostly because of a recruiting class that looked great on paper. But the first-year prospects struggled from the start. So the losses stacked up. And the Wildcats were 13-4 through 17 games with three losses to schools with RPIs outside of the top 75. UK has dropped to 20th in the AP poll.

But now UK is 16-4.

The Wildcats won by double-digits at Arkansas last week.

Then they dominated Vanderbilt.

Then they murdered Missouri.

And while it’s still probably too early to proclaim all is fixed with the team that calls Rupp Arena home, get ready for this season’s narrative to completely flip if Kentucky somehow wins at fourth-ranked Kansas on Saturday. As you know, that’s a rare feat, winning at Allen Fieldhouse. But Kentucky is undeniably playing better than it played early in the season, and don’t ever forget this: UK remains, despite its ups and downs, the nation’s only school with three projected top-31 picks in the 2016 NBA Draft, according to DraftExpress.com.

In other words, Kentucky can still out-talent most opponents.

Kansas, included.

So this rematch of the 2012 national championship game should be fun.

Kentucky's Tyler Ulis led the Wildcats to a rout of Missouri on Wednesday. (USATSI)
Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis led the Wildcats to a rout of Missouri on Wednesday. (USATSI)

ONE GAME I CAN’T WAIT TO WATCH: The nation’s top-ranked team, Oklahoma, will be back in action Saturday against LSU, which means we’ll have the leading candidate for National Player of the Year (Buddy Hield) on the same court as the likely No. 1 pick of the 2016 NBA Draft (Ben Simmons). Yes, Oklahoma will be favored. But road games can be tricky. And LSU is 9-3 since Craig Victor became eligible.

ANOTHER GAME I CAN’T WAIT TO WATCH: Louisville has beaten Pittsburgh and Florida State at home, and Georgia Tech and North Carolina State on the road. But the 16th-ranked Cardinals still do not have the kind of win that keeps critics from asking, “Hey, exactly who has Louisville beaten that’s any good?” And that’s why Saturday’s game with 11th-ranked Virginia at the Yum! Center is so important, because it’s a great opportunity to shut some people up before No. 2 North Carolina visits Monday night.

AND YET ANOTHER GAME I CAN’T WAIT TO WATCH: Iowa State started 1-3 in the Big 12 before beating two teams — Oklahoma and Kansas — that’ve been ranked No 1 this season, and now the 14th-ranked Cyclones will take their four-game winning streak to Texas A&M, where the fifth-ranked Aggies are 12-0 with 11 double-digit victories. With a win, I think, Iowa State will have a real shot to bounce back into the top five of the AP poll on Monday, which seemed like an unlikely scenario just two weeks ago.

FUN GAME BETWEEN UNRANKED TEAMS: Neither Vanderbilt nor Texas is ranked or a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. But they’re both top-40 KenPom teams. So whichever prevails in Saturday’s showdown will exit with a much-needed quality win.

THE PLAYER TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Kris Dunn gets all of the attention, and for good reason. He’s terrific and a future top-five pick. But the guy leading 10th-ranked Providence in both points and rebounds is Ben Bentil, a 6-foot-9 forward who is averaging 20.0 points and 8.1 rebounds. He got 31 points and 13 rebounds against Villanova last weekend, then got 25 points and six rebounds against Xavier earlier this week. So it’ll be interesting to see what Bentil does Saturday against Georgetown.

LOCK OF THE WEEKEND: Villanova beat La Salle by 29 after its first loss of the season, then beat Delaware by 30 after its second loss of the season. So the sixth-ranked Wildcats are overwhelming after losses, which is bad news for St. John’s but great news for us. Because Villanova is coming off of a loss to Providence, and now the Wildcats are playing the Red Storm on Sunday. So we’re laying the points and stacking cash. #GetPaper

FIVE THINGS WORTH NOTING

1. Wichita State is on its way to winning a third consecutive MVC title, and the only thing that can maybe slow the 22nd-ranked Shockers is an Evansville team that’s 18-4 overall, 7-2 in the MVC. To be clear, I don’t believe Evansville can actually slow the Shockers. But I’ll be willing to take a fresh look if Evansville upsets Gregg Marshall’s team Sunday.

2. Maryland got its first top-50 RPI win Thursday against Iowa. And though backing that with a victory at Ohio State on Sunday won’t register similarly with fans of the eighth-ranked Terrapins, it should be noted that, for all intents and purposes, beating the Buckeyes on the road is about as difficult as beating Iowa at home, according to oddsmakers.

3. Miami is ranked 15th and playing well. But the Hurricanes are 0-2 in road games against teams with top-125 RPIs. N.C. State is 108th in the RPI. Miami plays at N.C. State Saturday.

4. We now know that, barring an improbable Big Ten Tournament championship, this will not be the season in which Northwestern makes the NCAA Tournament for the first time. The Wildcats have lost six of their past eight games and are now 3-6 in the league with Sunday’s trip to No. 3 Iowa on tap. So 3-7 is the probable scenario.

5. There are 351 Division I teams — and only one is entering this weekend with more than 18 victories. Naturally, it’s Dan Majerle’s Grand Canyon Antelopes, who are 19-2 and leading the WAC even though this is just the school’s third season at the DI level. It’s a remarkable story, one that generated the program’s first ever vote in the AP poll earlier this week. Grand Canyon hosts Seattle on Saturday at GCU Arena, where a win will setup next week’s showdown with the reigning WAC champions (New Mexico State).

FINAL THOUGHT: I like Dave Rice. And everybody I know who knows Dave Rice likes Dave Rice. He’s a gentleman, and it’s too bad things didn’t work out at his alma mater. But it’s getting difficult to insist UNLV was wrong to pull the trigger when it did, isn’t it?

The Runnin’ Rebels are 4-1 since assistant Todd Simon took over.

They just beat Boise State by double-digits.

And it’s hard to watch them and not conclude that the change at the top sparked something that’s provided hope for this season. Sure, UNLV has probably already taken too many bad losses to position itself for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. But UNLV earning the MWC’s automatic bid courtesy of a league tournament played on its homecourt doesn’t seem impossible anymore, and this season doesn’t feel like it’s headed nowhere anymore, either. The players are recharged and refocused. The fans are re-engerized. And that’s why Saturday’s game with San Diego State at the Thomas & Mack Center is huge.

Win or lose, UNLV will never catch SDSU in the standings.

But a win will kick things to another level with a fan base desperate to care.

And that’s worth something given where this program was just three weeks ago.

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