LEXINGTON, K.Y. – By the end of the 2027-28 college basketball season, it’s a safe bet to assume Gonzaga’s six-year series with Kentucky will have had a little of everything.
Dramatic endings. Exquisite individual performances. Head-scratching officiating decisions. Clever adjustments by the Hall of Fame coaches involved.
Everything is on the table when programs with the pedigree, history and sustained excellence of Gonzaga and Kentucky meet.
That said, Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena may be the only time over the next five years the Bulldogs (17-6) and Wildcats (16-6) will face off a month before Selection Sunday with this much uncertainty surrounding their NCAA Tournament resumes.
“Obviously, it’s a whole other entity we’re going to deal with in Rupp,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They’re desperate just like we are, but man, they’ve got some high-level talent.”
Admittedly, there are degrees to the desperation facing each team on Saturday.
Kentucky is ranked No. 17 in the Associated Press Top 25, owns a 2-4 record in Quad 1 games and has four Quad 1 opportunities remaining in the regular season after Saturday’s game, with potentially two or three more waiting in the SEC Tournament.
The Wildcats haven’t inspired much hope with their recent play, losing four of their past eight games, and could be inching closer to the bubble if they don’t return to form – particularly on the defensive end – over the next three weeks.
Kentucky’s also in danger of losing three consecutive home games for the first time in school history after dropping its last two at Rupp, against Tennessee and Florida.
“We can’t be soft coming into this one or we’re going to get smacked by 40,” Kentucky center Aaron Bradshaw said.
Gonzaga’s resume is still lacking a Quad 1 win – the Bulldogs are 0-5 in those games – and Few’s team has spent four consecutive weeks outside of the Top 25 after spending the previous 142 weeks ranked in the AP poll.
It’s widely believed the Zags can’t afford another blemish on their resume if they still want to earn an at-large NCAA Tournament berth.
Is that resonating inside Gonzaga’s locker room this week?
“I would say so,” fifth-year senior forward Anton Watson said Wednesday before giving the floor to redshirt freshman forward Braden Huff to answer the same question.
“Yeah,” Huff agreed.
“Most definitely,” Watson said.
“We’ll be locked in for that one,” Huff added. “For sure.”
Watson, who had a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double in Gonzaga’s 88-72 win over Kentucky at the Arena last season, acknowledged the margin for error is razor-thin for a team that could have just three more Quad 1 opportunities remaining.
“We’ve got to take these opportunities and take full advantage of them,” Watson said. “We can’t really dwell on the past or dwell on our losses. We know we can’t really lose any more games.”
Either way, one team will walk out of Rupp Arena with a resume-boosting win and the other with its seventh loss. In a game featuring two high-powered offenses, it could come down to the team that displays the most connectivity and toughness on the defensive end.
Kentucky leads the nation in scoring offense at 89.7 points per game, occupying a position the Zags have occasionally held down over the years. Not unlike many of GU’s best offensive teams, the Wildcats specialize in 3-point shooting and transition scoring.
As a team, they make an NCAA-high 41.1% from the 3-point line, have the nation’s fourth-best assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.83 and rank seventh in fastbreak points scoring 16.4 per game.
“Obviously, they’re talented, but it’s amazing how they shoot it so easy and how confident they are,” Few said. “The whole group is very impressive. I don’t think offensively they were quite there last year, but this is a really, really, really good offensive team and they’re deadly in transition. So we’ve got to get back and guard the 3 line and then try to set our defense and keep them in front.”
Four Wildcats have scored at least 25 points in a game this season, but 6-foot-6 senior guard Antonio Reeves, the reigning SEC Sixth Man of the Year, leads John Calipari’s roster averaging 19.7 points while making 44.4% of his shots from the 3-point line.
Reeves is one of only two Kentucky players who appeared in last year’s game at the Arena, logging 24 minutes while accounting for 10 of the Wildcats’ 12 bench points.
“ ‘Cal’ has done a good job bringing freshmen in and mixing in some experienced transfers and keeping a couple guys around from last year,” Few said. “They’re really, really something on offense right now.”
Watson is one of three Zags who saw the court in the 2022 game, starting alongside junior guard and former Kentucky commit Nolan Hickman. Ben Gregg, who recently moved into GU’s starting lineup, played 4 minutes in the 16-point win.
“They are, like they are normally, a good offensive team,” Calipari said about Gonzaga on his weekly radio show. “They’ve got some size, their guard play, (Ryan) Nembhard, is good. They’re good. … It’ll be another hard game for us.”
Two Kentucky starters, forward Tre Mitchell (back) and guard DJ Wagner (ankle), are questionable for a team that hasn’t been at full strength in any of its 22 games this season. Kentucky was 0-3 in games without Wagner before Tuesday’s SEC win at Vanderbilt. Mitchell, who’s on his fourth school, scored six points in 14 minutes off the bench for Texas when the Longhorns visited Gonzaga in 2021.
Kentucky has relied heavily on the potent offense to mask major shortcomings on defense. The Wildcats are allowing 78.3 points per game – they rank No. 317 nationally in that category – and have conceded at least 90 points to five SEC opponents.
Keeping up with Kentucky’s offense might require Gonzaga to excel in the areas the Wildcats excel.
One of those, 3-point shooting, has been a glaring weakness for the Bulldogs in each of their six losses, but Gonzaga is coming off its best outing of the year, making 15 of 33 shots from behind the arc in Wednesday’s win over Portland.
“We’ll just have to play the game and see what they’re going to do and play our way,” Few said. “We’ll just do what we do and see if we can find some matchups and advantages and hopefully we can make shots like we did (Wednesday). The game feels a lot better, looks a lot better and the result is usually a lot better when you just make those open shots. It helps when you make 15 3s instead of three or four.”