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Jamie Vaught: UK-Kansas series has featured some memorable encounters over the years

Kentucky and Kansas have battled numerous times over the years. But I only remember a couple of UK-KU matchups really well prior to last Saturday night’s showdown between traditional powerhouses.

The rest of the encounters in the series, for the most part, have been a blur, but I unfortunately do recall watching undermanned Kentucky’s horrible 150-95 loss at Lawrence on television during coach Rick Pitino’s first year in Lexington.

The first one that I covered as a sportswriter was the 1978 miracle performed by Joe B. Hall’s Wildcats in a wild, stunning victory over Ted Owens’ Jayhawks at Rupp Arena. UK trailed by six points with 30 seconds remaining but somehow fought back in winning the overtime classic. I still have a yellowed newspaper copy of my front-page article of that exciting contest.

Malik Monk is leading SEC with a 21.7-point average going into this week’s play (Jamie Vaught Photo)

That Kentucky team, led by junior star Kyle Macy and freshman sensation Dwight Anderson, went on to finish the 1978-79 campaign with a 19-12 mark, including a first-round overtime loss to Clemson in the NIT at Rupp Arena.

The other one that I remember is the 2012 national championship game in New Orleans when Kentucky defeated Kansas 67-59 before a crowd of 70,913 fans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, ending its 14-year drought of the NCAA title. That was a big highlight of my writing career.

And you perhaps can add last Saturday night’s showdown between both clubs. Even though the then-No. 4 Wildcats lost to second-ranked Kansas 79-73, it’s memorable because we haven’t seen a Top 5 matchup at Rupp Arena very often since the 24,000-seat facility opened in 1976.

In addition, a very emotional crowd of 24,418, which is a season-high, helped Kentucky set a world record for having the loudest indoor crowd cheer. A representative from the Guinness Book of World Records confirmed the record when the natural roar and clapping from a festive Rupp Arena crowd measured at 126.4-decibel just before the tipoff. (No digital or artificial noise was permitted.)

Of course, the popular ESPN College GameDay crew was on hand to cover the marquee event.

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Not surprisingly, UK’s setback to Kansas seriously hurt its NCAA tournament chances of getting a No. 1 seed. With 10 SEC regular season games remaining, Kentucky drops to 17-4 with only one signature victory – a 103-100 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas – to show on its resume. But Kentucky still has a chance to get a very good seed, better than last year’s No. 4, in the Big Dance.

After Saturday’s loss, Kentucky dropped three spots to No. 8, according to NCAA RPI rankings, just ahead of No. 9 Florida, which the Cats will face in Gainesville this weekend. In that rating, three of UK’s opponents were placed higher with Kansas at No. 3, Louisville No. 4 and North Carolina No. 7.

NCAA RPI also gave other Kentucky foes respectable marks with South Carolina at No. 19 and UCLA at No. 22.

By the way, Jeff Sagarin Ratings, which appear in USA Today, has Kentucky at No. 2 behind No. 1 West Virginia after Saturday’s games. Interesting, huh?

Anyhow, the Wildcats are still in a reasonably good shape for a No. 2 seed – even possibly No. 1 if the other top schools lose down the stretch. But Kentucky pretty much has to win the rest of the schedule to grab a No. 2, just to be sure. It won’t be easy, though, as the young squad is still learning and struggling with its defense.

“We’re just not there yet,” said UK sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe of his team’s toughness and defense. “Like you said, we have a team full of freshman and sophomores. Today Kansas’ experience showed. They were down and kept fighting. I give them credit, but a lot of that is on us.”

Briscoe had 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists against the Jayhawks. And Briscoe has been a workhorse lately, now grabbing 22 rebounds in the last two games with a game-high 14 rebounds against Tennessee in Knoxville.

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Against coach Bill Self’s Kansas club, Kentucky stars Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox were not the only ones on the hardwood floor who were named to the John R. Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list in mid-January.

Kansas standouts – senior guard Frank Mason III and freshman guard Josh Jackson — are also on Wooden’s Midseason Top 25 list. Mason and Jackson, by the way, posted game-scoring honors with 21 and 20 points, respectively against UK.

The John Wooden Award goes to the nation’s most outstanding basketball player.

Mason currently leads the Big 12 conference with a 19.9-point average entering this week’s action. He is also No. 1 in the league in 3-point field goal shooting with 51.6 percent.

Mason added that his college hoops experience helped him overcome Saturday’s big-time atmosphere.

“It helped us a lot to come in here and get a win,” he said after the game. “They (the Wildcats) are a great team and a great program with great tradition. Just for all the guys to come out here and experience that will help us out when it matters.”

As for the UK guards, Monk is leading SEC with a 21.7-point average going into this week’s play. Fox tops the league with 5.7 assists per game.

A speedy guard with exceptional passing ability, Fox could be a threat to break Tyler Ulis’ single-season assist record at Kentucky. Ulis had 246 assists last year. Fox, so far, has 120 assists in 21 contests.

For Fox to have a chance to snatch the school assist mark, Kentucky will have to do well in postseason, advancing in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

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You probably have noticed on television the basketball coaches around the country, including Calipari and Self, have been wearing sneakers in the past week.

It is a joint effort by the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) and the American Cancer Society where more than 4,000 high school and college men’s coaches and staffs swapped their dress shoes for sneakers with their usual attire during games.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com Magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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