Arlington, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - The inaugural Big 12/SEC Challenge takes root in the Lone Star State on Friday night, as the third-ranked Kentucky Wildcats battle the 20th-ranked Baylor Bears at AT&T Stadium.
Both teams come in sporting identical 7-1 records, with the Wildcats' lone loss taking place in Chicago against ranked foe Michigan State (78-74), while the Bears also fell to a fellow member of the Top-25 on a neutral court, losing to Syracuse in Maui (74-67).
Kentucky has bounced back from the loss to MSU by winning five straight, the most recent of which being a 79-65 decision over Providence last Sunday in Brooklyn, New York. The 'Cats still have tough bouts with North Carolina and Louisville to come before beginning SEC play at home versus Mississippi State on Jan. 8, 2014.
Baylor's loss to the Orange took place in the championship game of the Maui Invitational the day before Thanksgiving, and the team returned home to blast Hardin-Simmons on Sunday, 104-59. This is the Bears final test before embarking on Big 12 Conference action at Iowa State on Jan. 7, 2014.
Kentucky leads the all-time series with Baylor, 7-1, and this is the third straight year the teams have met. The 'Cats won in Lexington last season, and also knocked off the Bears in an Elite Eight matchup in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky has had very little trouble establishing its dominance at both ends of the floor this season, averaging 84.5 ppg in hitting 48.3 percent of its field goal attempts, while allowing 64.0 ppg with foes shooting just 35.7 percent from the field. The Wildcats are actually being outshot from 3-point range (.323 to .318), but a massive +15.5 rebounding advantage coupled with the fact that four players are scoring in double figures on a consistent basis, and one more being close to joining the ranks. Freshman sensation Julius Randle has been a beast in the early going, averaging 18.1 points and 12.6 rpg, all while shooting 52.9 percent from the floor. Fellow rookies Aaron Harrison (13.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg), James Young (13.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and Andrew Harrison (10.4 ppg, 3.4 apg) have all excelled in one capacity or another, while Willie Cauley-Stein (9.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 3.9 bpg) provides a veteran presence, despite being only a sophomore.
Young hit for 18 points to lead the Wildcats to their recent win over Providence, the team making good on 64.3 percent of its total shots, draining 6-of-8 long-range launches in the process. Cauley-Stein came close to logging a triple-double as he scored 15 points, blocked nine shots (second-most in a game in UK history) and grabbing eight rebounds. The Friars were limited to 31.1 percent field goal efficiency. Aaron Harrison and Randle both finished in double digits as well, netting 15 and 12 points, respectively.
The difference in scoring between what the Bears generate and that of their opponents is a bit closer than that of their counterpart tonight, but still impressive nonetheless. Baylor is generating 78.1 ppg while permitting 66.5 ppg (+11.6), and the team is successful on 50.2 percent of its field goal attempts, while draining 44.4 percent of its 3-point tries. Conversely, foes are shooting just 38.6 percent from the floor, with 34.9 percent of their tries from beyond the arc finding the bottom of the net. BU owns a substantial +11.9 rebounding margin, but is -4.2 in turnover differential. Cory Jefferson (13.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg) paces four Bears in double digits, and he is instrumental in helping the squad control the glass with relative ease. Brady Heslip (12.9 ppg, 26-of-50 from 3-point land) is the club's second-leading scorer, but does all his damage coming off the bench. Kenny Chery (10.8 ppg, 4.9 apg) and Isaiah Austin (10.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.3 bpg) have both been productive members of the starting lineup.
Heslip and Rico gathers both scored 17 points to lead a half dozen Bears in double digits, as Baylor had no problem dismissing Hardin-Simmons last weekend, winning by 45. Jefferson notched a double-double consisting of 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Baylor shot 63.3 percent from the field, which included a 10-of-19 showing from 3-point range. Meanwhile, its overmatched opponent made good on only 5-of-27 trey attempts and shot a meager 37.9 percent from the floor overall. BU claimed a huge 45-21 edge on the boards.