Updated win-loss record for Kansas at 11:25 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021.
Before the start of this college basketball season, Saturday night's matchup between Kansas and Tennessee inside Thompson-Boling Arena had the makings of an anticipated top-10 showdown.
It won't be too far off.
The No. 15 Jayhawks and No. 18 Volunteers are a bit more battered and bruised from conference play than was expected to this point, but they will be motivated by league pride and the potential for a quality victory as the headliner of this year's 10-game Big 12/SEC Challenge. The contest has a 6 p.m. tip on ESPN, with the Vols looking to even the score after enduring a 74-68 setback last January inside the famed Allen Fieldhouse.
"It's going to be a great game," Tennessee senior guard/forward Yves Pons said. "We lost last year, and I still remember that. That was a great game, and we are going to try and get revenge."
This marks the eighth annual Big 12/SEC Challenge and the sixth consecutive year in which the extravaganza takes place on January's final weekend. The two leagues have produced a 20-20 split over the past four seasons after the Big 12 built a 20-10 advantage during the event's first three years.
The Big 12/SEC Challenge is always an opportunity for each league to showcase its strength at the expense of the other, and there could be added importance placed on this year's competition after the coronavirus wiped out a chunk of nonconference matchups.
"I do not know if it will have bearing on what will happen with the NCAA tournament, even though you think that every game you play has a bearing on the NCAA tournament," Vols coach Rick Barnes said. "Perception-wise, I think that there are good teams in both leagues regardless of what happens. Right now, I think everybody really and honestly is more considerate of what we saw at Michigan, where they have shut down for two weeks.
"Every time that you go out, you have to take advantage of it and play, because who knows how long it will be before that happens somewhere in your program or somewhere else within the league?"
Kansas and Tennessee are projected as No. 4 seeds in the NCAA tournament by longtime ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi, and each could use a triumph to stem a mildly disappointing month in which Baylor and Alabama have run away from them in their respective league races. The Jayhawks improved to 11-5 overall and 5-4 in Big 12 play with Thursday night's 59-51 win against TCU, while the Vols are 11-3 overall and 5-3 within the Southeastern Conference.
A big difference between the two is that Kansas is 3-3 against top-10 opposition this season, while Tennessee is 0-0. The Jayhawks opened their season with a 102-90 loss to top-ranked Gonzaga, while Tennessee's scheduled game with Gonzaga was canceled for reasons related to COVID-19.
"There will be a lot more discussion as time goes on about postseason tournaments and those types of things," Barnes said. "If we can get as many teams as we can to the 20-22 mark of total games, we can probably give the NCAA what they need in some ways, but as you know, some teams had no preseason and are going to play the minimum games of 13.
"I know what you are asking as far the perception of this weekend, but I do not know if the NCAA tournament works off perception. In terms of leagues, I think they look at what they think are quality basketball teams, and that is where their decision comes from."
Kansas had five players averaging double figures in points going into Thursday night: junior guard Ochai Agbaji (14.5), redshirt freshman forward Jalen Wilson (13.1), junior forward David McCormack (11.5), sophomore guard Christian Braun (10.1) and senior guard Marcus Garrett (10.0). Senior forward John Fulkerson (11.2) and redshirt junior guard Victor Bailey (10.9) are Tennessee's only players scoring in double digits, but a whopping five more are on the doorstep — freshman guard Jaden Springer (9.9), sophomore guard Santiago Vescovi (9.2), freshman guard Keon Johnson (8.9), Pons (8.6) and sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James (8.1).
Last season's game was tight despite Tennessee winding up just 17-14 and with Kansas possessing a 28-3 record and a No. 1 ranking when the COVID-19 outbreak shelved the rest of the season.
"Last year was last year," Johnson said. "We know what we have to do coming in, and I feel like this is a new team. They're a new team. It will be a fun game to watch."
Pons in running
The Atlanta Tipoff Club has announced that Pons, the reigning defensive player of the year in the SEC, is on the 15-man watch list for the 2021 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award.