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January 6, 2006

Situation different for UK-Kansas

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Last season's meeting between Kentucky and Kansas was in the national spotlight, a clash of Top 10 teams and storied programs.

The shine has dimmed a bit on this year's contest.

When the 19th-ranked Wildcats visit Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday in their final nonconference game, they'll face a youthful Jayhawks squad righting themselves after a tough start to the season.

When the teams met last year for the first time since 1999, No. 2 Kansas beat No. 8 Kentucky 65-59 in Lexington.

The Wildcats are the winningest team in college basketball history while the Jayhawks rank third all-time.

"I think there are only a handful of programs that have what Kentucky and Kansas have, and very rarely do they get the opportunity to play each other," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "I think that's what makes for special games."

The Jayhawks started this season 3-4 for the first time since 1971, but have rebounded to win five in a row thanks mainly to solid defense. They're holding opponents to a Big 12-low 35.5 percent from the field.

"Not only are we playing against great tradition, but against a talented team," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "We have to raise our level of play in order to compete with them."

This contest could present Smith's team with another tough challenge from an unranked opponent.

The Wildcats (10-3) will be looking for their fifth straight win, but the previous four haven't come easy. After beating then-No. 4 Louisville 73-61 on Dec. 17, the Wildcats have had scares in their past three games. After beating Iona 73-67 and Ohio 71-63, Kentucky needed a last-second jumper by sophomore guard Rajon Rondo to get by Central Florida 59-57 at home on Tuesday.

"We have to be mentally prepared for every team we play," said Rondo, who leads the Wildcats with 15.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. "If we play a team who has a big name on their chests, then we are going to come out ready. But if we play a team who doesn't have a big name or a star player, we have a hard time coming out ready."

It was another wake-up call for a Kentucky team that is struggling to put teams away.

"We want to be a championship team, but we've got to play better together before we can even think about that," Smith said. "We aren't getting the type of offensive production we'd like to see."

Smith removed all five starters at one point in the first half, a half in which Kentucky missed its first six shots and fell behind by 11 points to the Golden Knights.

The Wildcats open SEC play on Tuesday against Vanderbilt.

The Jayhawks (8-4) started three sophomores and two freshmen in their latest contest, an 87-46 win over Yale on Wednesday. Jeff Hawkins, one of only three seniors on the roster, tied his career high with 19 points and Kansas used a 14-0 first-half run to pull away from the pesky Bulldogs.

"A win like this helps the freshmen," Hawkins said. "We haven't won as many games as we have in the past, and a lot of them are probably thinking like, 'Man.' But the more we win and the more we play good, it gets their confidence up."

Hawkins, who is nursing a sore back, came off the bench as freshman Mario Chalmers got his first career start for the Jayhawks. Self said Chalmers, who scored 13 points, will probably start against Kentucky.

A win over a ranked opponent would provide another confidence boost for the Jayhawks heading into Big 12 play, starting Wednesday against Colorado.

Kentucky leads the all-time series 19-4, though the schools have split the last six meetings. The Wildcats were handed the second-worst loss in school history in their last trip to Allen Fieldhouse, losing 150-95 on Dec. 16, 1989.

"It will be a game that in my prediction, will not be the most artistic game," Self said. "If it is anything like last year, it will be a battle - loose balls, collisions, two teams getting after it and two programs with a lot of pride."

For more coverage of the Kentucky Wildcats, check out CatsPause.com, and for more coverage of the Kansas Jayhawks, check out JayhawkSlant.com.

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