Cats Illustrated caught up with Shay Wildeboor of JayhawkSlant.com to help preview Tuesday night's big college basketball game between Kentucky and Kansas.
We put several questions to him to get a perspective from someone who follows the Jayhawks closely.
Cats Illustrated: What do you think about where Kansas ranks in the national polls right now? Do you think that's fair or do you think the perception is off base at this point?
Shay Wildeboor, JayhawkSlant.com: Yeah, I mean, I think that's fair. I don't know how familiar you are with the rivalry that they have with Missouri but for a long time it was a nasty rivalry and they opened up with an exhibition game against those guys. They hadn't played since 2012. Really, I don't know if the score was a true indicator. I mean, Kansas was up big and they kinda failed to close the door. They played really well against Pitt State and then again in the opener they just crushed Tennessee State. There was a time in the first half when they played about as well as I think you could play. So yeah, obviously moving forward we're going to learn a lot more about this team, especially (Tuesday) night. But they've won the league 13 straight years. The last two years they've been right on the cusp of the Final Four losing last year to Oregon and the year before to Villanova. With what they have coming back, what they have with freshmen and the coaching staff, I think it's fair right now.
Cats Illustrated: Kentucky fans watch a lot of college basketball outside of just Kentucky, but from the perspective of someone who follows Kansas closely every day, how do you anticipate and how have you seen that this team will be different than the Jayhawk team we watched last season?
Wildeboor: Well, you know, Frank Mason, that guy was amazing. To me his run kind of started against Duke in the Champions Classic when he hit the game winner and he broke out. He was a guy who didn't say a lot. He wasn't a real loud leader. He kind of led by example. I'm sure behind closed doors he said what he had to say and there were specific moments on the court when he needed to talk he did, but he let his play do his talking. You know, I don't know if they've got a guy this year ... Obviously Devonte' Graham has a chance to be a star. He's going to be a vocal leader. Lagerald Vick has a chance to have a big year. Udoka Azubuike, when he's on top of his game and he can stay healthy I don't know how you can defend that guy. When I look at their team when it's crunch time, I don't think you know who's going to take the shot. I mean you look at Devonte. He's got that DNA inside of him. He was there for three years with Frank. He came up big against Tennessee State. Aside from the first or second exhibition game he's been rock solid.
I just don't know when the game's on the line, who do you look to? My first instinct would be Devonte but until that comes you don't know. Until you're in that situation I can't answer it. I'm interested to see how this team responds when its back is up against the wall. When you're playing an exhibition game against Missouri and you're in the Sprint Center in a game that means very little, you probably have a little more confidence. But when the game's on the line, who's going to make the play? I think I'm most anxious to see that.
Cats Illustrated: As far as the guys coming back other than Devonte, is there a guy or two you feel is poised to see a big step forward?
Wildeboor: Well I think it's got to be Udoka Azubuike, the 7-foot big man. He missed a lot of last year with an injury to his hand. If he's healthy he's such a matchup problem down low. 7-foot, 280. I know a lot of guys now like to get out on the perimeter and that's not his game at all. He is a guy that's going to pound you in the paint and if he can stay healthy and stay out of foul trouble I think he's going to add something different to this team that they haven't had. Last year they had Landen Lucas who did wonders for this team. But it's a different style of big man. This is a true "feed the post, go get some buckets and rebounds, block shots," so I think he is really one of the biggest X-factors. Then Billy Preston, at Oak Hill Academy he told me Coach Steve Smith just kind of let him do what he wanted to do. Here he's going to have to play a big role. He's a guy that has a back to the basket game and he likes to face up to, but he's a big X-factor as well. He missed the season opener because he missed class and was late at curfew so he didn't start out the way you want to but he's a guy that, if Azubuike gets in foul trouble or if for some reason he gets tired or the opposing team goes big and you've got to put two big guys out there, to me Billy can be that guy and really provide problems with his inside-outside guy.
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Then there's Mitch Lightfoot. He played sparingly last year. He's kind of an unknown. He spent a lot of time in the weight room. He could have a chance whether that be because of foul trouble or somebody needs a breather. I think those are the two or three biggest guys who might be ready to take a step forward. I think Malik Newman, too. He's got to be consistent. He can't go from 19 (points) one game to four to another. They need him to be a consistent scorer. He's a guy who can bring the ball up the court. They're going to need him to be effective as well. Those are really the guys off the top of my head who will need to be consistent, go-to guys.
Cats Illustrated: Are there one or two other big questions you have about this team or areas where you expect opponents to really try and attack Kansas?
Wildeboor: If Udoka gets in foul trouble or if he can't play for some reason who's going to take over down low? Do they have someone to throw the ball in the paint and get a bucket? You can only rely on the guys on the perimeter to a certain point. At some point you're going to have to become a team that is a multidimensional team. As far as (Tuesday) night, I want to see how Udoka responds to playing against that Kentucky front line, which is as long as any one through five that (Bill Self) remembers. Then when the big moment comes, who are you going to turn to? Who's going to make the big plays? There's got to be a guy who steps up and wants the ball in his hands. And I think there are several guys capable of that. I think Devonte, Lagerald Vick the first game looked like a star, Malik Newman hasn't been at that situation at Kansas but he's as talented at one point as anybody in his class ... But when things are going bad, how will they respond? Who's going to lead them? I want to see how they handle some adversity early on in the season because when you get to the tournament that's what it's all about. Again, you had Oregon in that game for a trip to the Final Four, they got down big and they just couldn't shift it. So to me, the big thing this year is about getting over the hump and breaking through. So early on we'll get a chance to see how this team responds to adversity.
Cats Illustrated: Do you have a score or outcome prediction for how the game will play out?
Wildeboor: I just think with the experience factor ... Simply because of the experience and only because of the experience, with Devonte, Lagerald and the guys they have coming back, I'm going to go 78-72 Kansas. And I could see it being flipped, too. I mean, I don't know how KU is going to play. Are they going to be too antsy? Are they going to be too amped up? I don't know if you'd say Kentucky had two lackluster performances but maybe after two unimpressive performances are they going to be ready to deliver a message? But I'm going to say 78-72 Kansas but it will go right down to the wire.