Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 71-63 loss to Kentucky on Saturday night at Rupp Arena.
KU wisely came out playing through big man Dedric Lawson, and even though he got off to a slow start, the junior had a double-double before halftime.
When Lawson wasn’t crafting his way to baskets, though, KU’s offense rarely dissected UK’s defense. The Jayhawks were at their best when getting in the open floor, where Devon Dotson or Quentin Grimes could score easy baskets. But those chances were seldom.
KU’s offense then fell off in the second half, with Lawson unable to put the entire team on his back, and little going the visitors’ way when they had the ball. Kentucky led by as many as 8 points by the midway mark of the second half.
A 1-for-7 shooting stretch in the heart of UK’s run delivered a serious blow to to KU’s chances.
The Jayhawks scored 30 second-half points on 10-for-27 shooting.
UK scored 87% of its points in the paint in the first half, with the Jayhawks having little to no success stopping the Wildcats from getting the ball to the paint.
Kentucky outscored its Big 12 opponent 26-14 in the paint in the first 20 minutes, and the Jayhawks repeatedly fouled Reid Travis (18 points) only to see the graduate transfer from Stanford finish and score through the contact.
And despite all of that, UK hit us 33.3% of its shots in the first half, missed all 8 of its 3-point tries and trailed KU 33-30 at intermission. Hard to complain too much about that if you’re KU.
The Wildcats started getting some 3-pointers to drop in the second half, though, and that’s when the Jayhawks began having more issues defending the entire floor.
UK made 48% of its attempts in the second half (4 for 10 on 3-pointers).
Lawson (20 points, 15 rebounds) did well for himself considering the numerous long-armed defenders UK had inside. Even better for KU, Lawson managed to stay out of foul trouble throughout the first half, meaning Kansas didn’t have to spend much time playing without his services.
However, KU’s best player seemingly wore down in the second half, and was unable to duplicate his first-half success.
A freshman, Dotson (9 points, 4 assists) looked as ready for Rupp Arena and the ESPN spotlight as any of KU’s guards. He played as fast with the ball against the Wildcats as he would against any other foe, and at times took advantage of space to drive or attack in the open court.
When Dotson picked up his third foul just a few minutes into the second half, Bill Self kept his valuable point guard on the floor. The Jayhawks might have been completely buried without him.
Garrett (4 points, 5 rebounds) missed his first six shot attempts of the game before finally scoring on a drive early in the second half. Garrett wasn’t nearly as effective as a scorer versus the lengthy UK defenders as he had been lately.
Grimes (13 points) reminded observers of his potential in flashes at Kentucky. At times, his active hands on defense and energy in the open court proved helpful. And, boy, did KU need his 3-pointers (3 for 5).
Vick (10 points, 6 rebounds), outside of an early drive and lay-in in the first half, spent much of the evening without making much of an impact.
The senior’s first 3-point make of the game came with KU down 10 with less than 1:30 left. Vick made another with just more than 1:00 left to make it 66-60, Kentucky.
Almost always the spark KU needs when subbing in, freshman Ochai Agbaji did his thing at Rupp Arena in the first half, scoring on a corner 3-pointer and a layup within a few minutes of stepping into the spotlight.
Kansas trailed by 2 when Agbaji checked in, but the Jayhawks built a 10-point lead within five minutes of the freshman joining the lineup.
Agbaji finished with 7 points and KU’s subs outscored UK’s 7-0, but the freshman couldn’t ignite anything in the second half.
Even though a top-10 caliber basketball team should be better prepared to face an opponent of its ilk in late January than it would be nearly three months earlier, during the season’s opening week, it’s safe to say two of college basketball’s most recognizable and successful head coaches prefer their November battles over clashes that come during the heart of each team’s conference schedule.
Both Kentucky’s John Calipari and University of Kansas coach Bill Self on Thursday described the timing of this weekend’s marquee SEC/Big 12 Challenge matchup as less than ideal.
The Wildcats (15-3 overall, 5-1 SEC) enter the Saturday showdown at Rupp Arena (5 p.m. tipoff, ESPN) ranked No. 8 in the country, coming off back-to-back victories over top-25 teams from UK’s conference, Auburn and Mississippi State.
As much as college basketball fans look forward to this type of blue blood encounter between two of the nation’s elite programs, Calipari would prefer to keep grinding away in the SEC.
“This league, top to bottom, there are no games that we, Kentucky, or me as a coach, that we’ll walk into thinking, ‘All right. We won.’ And to play this at this time of the year, I’m not for it,” Calipari said during the SEC coaches teleconference of UK’s date with the No. 9 Jayhawks (16-3 overall, 5-2 Big 12).
The timing of the made-for-ESPN SEC/Big 12 Challenge, Calipari made clear, is suboptimal, because the league schedule already is tasking his team enough.
Kentucky is one of three SEC teams ranked in the top 17 according to KenPom.com, which has eight total teams from KU’s league ranked among the top 46 in the country and boasts the current No. 1 in the AP top 25, Tennessee.
“We don’t need something in the middle of our league that takes us away from league play to prove how good we are and prove how good we’re not,” Calipari said.
During his past stops as a head coach, Calipari actually sought out such mid-season tests. At Memphis, he would break up the Tigers’ Conference USA schedule with games against programs such as Gonzaga or Tennessee. When he had UMass rolling in the mid-1990s, Calipari’s Minutemen would interrupt their Atlantic-10 dominance with nonconference games versus the likes of Pittsburgh or Louisville.
“I always played teams like this in the middle of our league play, because the league wasn’t giving us what we needed,” Calipari explained.
The Kentucky coach wasn’t so certain a midseason basketball exam against Kansas is what his current team needs at this exact time.
“But if it ends up being good for both leagues and it ends up being a good thing, then I’m fine. We’ll play the game — I’m not saying that,” Calipari went on. “But I’m just saying, this league is hard enough. We don’t need anything in the middle to say, ‘This will show how good we are or how good they are.’ I don’t agree with it.”
Much in the way UK doesn’t have one of its historic, nearly unstoppable teams, such as the years when superstars like Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis manned the paint, Self’s Jayhawks aren’t a Big 12 juggernaut this season, either.
If Kansas were in the midst of steamrolling the rest of the conference, a hiatus for a step up in competition would double as a welcome opportunity to see how the Jayhawks stacked up against another highly successful program.
When asked during his weekly press conference, though, about the positives and negatives of playing in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge right near the middle of the conference schedule, Self began his response by presenting the downside.
“The negatives are it comes at a bad time of the season. I mean, it’s not a great game. It’s not a great game for Kentucky. It’s not a great game for us. But,” Self quickly added after a pause, “it’s a great game because, to the kids, we get a chance to play Kentucky. And to their kids, they probably think the same thing about playing us.”
Similar to the Wildcats, the Jayhawks find themselves in a no-days-off type of conference (see: last-place West Virginia’s win over Kansas this past weekend). Arguably, the Big 12 is even more rigorous than the SEC, because of the 10-team league’s round-robin format and the fact that every Big 12 team — even relative outliers Oklahoma State and West Virginia — currently reside among the top 90 teams nationally, according to KenPom. Conversely, the 14-team SEC’s four worst teams — South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Texas A&M — rank between 100 and 133.
While KU currently can claim first place in the Big 12 standings, the 14-time defending league champion currently shares that spot with Kansas State, with three other teams within a game of the co-leaders.
What’s more, eight of the Big 12’s teams currently rank among the top 45 in the country, per KenPom. So, from Self’s perspective, a nonconference game at Kentucky doesn’t seem quite so consequential, given where it falls on the schedule.
“It’s not as important as playing at Texas,” Self said, comparing the KU-UK confrontation to KU’s upcoming trip to play the Longhorns on Tuesday. “But in the moment it’s as big as any game that we’ll have. And to our players, they’ll feel that same way, too.”
KU’s 16th-year head coach figured most of his peers, as Calipari’s comments seemed to confirm, aren’t fans of fragmenting the league schedule.
“But it’s great exposure for our league, it’s great exposure for the SEC,” Self acknowledged. “And for one day on game day, we’ll actually be hearing about the Big 12 and all the schools in it, which is great for our league.”
8 SEC and 8 Big 12 teams ranked in KenPom top 50
(Rankings entering Thursday)
No. 5: Tennessee
No. 9: Kentucky
No. 12: Kansas
No. 13: Iowa State
No. 15: Texas Tech
No. 17: Auburn
No. 22: TCU
No. 24: Oklahoma
No. 26: LSU
No. 27: Florida
No. 28: Mississippi State
No. 29: Texas
No. 36: Kansas State
No. 37: Mississippi
No. 45: Baylor
No. 46: Alabama
6 SEC and 2 Big 12 teams ranked outside KenPom top 50
No. 65: Arkansas
No. 74: Oklahoma State
No. 79: Missouri
No. 88: West Virginia
No. 100: South Carolina
No. 101: Vanderbilt
No. 115: Georgia
No. 133: Texas A&M
2019 SEC/Big 12 Challenge Schedule
(Rankings from AP)
No. 24 Iowa State (14-5) at No. 20 Ole Miss (14-4) — ESPN, 11 a.m.
Alabama (12-6) at Baylor (12-6) — ESPNU, 11 a.m.
Florida (11-7) at TCU (14-4) — ESPN2, 11 a.m.
Kansas State (15-4) at Texas A&M (7-10) — ESPN, 1 p.m.
South Carolina (10-8) at Oklahoma State (8-11) — ESPNU, 1 p.m.
Texas (11-8) at Georgia (9-9) — ESPN2, 1 p.m.
West Virginia (9-10) at No. 1 Tennessee (17-1) — ESPN, 3 p.m.
Vanderbilt (9-9) at Oklahoma (14-5) — ESPN2, 3 p.m.
No. 9 Kansas (16-3) at No. 8 Kentucky (15-3) — ESPN, 5 p.m.
Arkansas (11-7) at No. 14 Texas Tech (15-4) — ESPN2, 5 p.m.
The hype for Kansas versus Kentucky might not be quite as deafening as college basketball fans hoped when the Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup was announced. Both teams aren’t currently ranked in the top five, like they were in the preseason polls. But that doesn’t mean Saturday night’s showdown (6 p.m., ESPN) between No. 4 Kansas and No. 20 Kentucky should be any less intense.
Kentucky (16-4 overall, 6-2 SEC), in fact, actually might be hitting its stride. Following a disappointing loss at Auburn on Jan. 16, coach John Calipari said the Wildcats responded in their next three games — a road win at Arkansas, and home routs of Vanderbilt and Missouri.
“We’re finally starting to become a team where I’m like, ‘OK, it looks like somebody I coach,’” Calipari said.
During the past 3 games, UK is averaging 81.3 points, giving up only 59.0 points, shooting 49.7% and holding opponents to 34.6%. On 3-point shots, Kentucky is making 36.4% and limiting foes to 26.8%.
“We’re beginning to have a swagger, because we’re guarding,” Calipari said.
Rebounding will be key for the Wildcats, too, at Kansas (16-4 overall, 5-3 Big 12). Kentucky averages a +10.0 rebound margin in wins this season, and is -1.8 in losses.
And, of course, if you recall the UK block party that broke out the last time these two programs met, early in the 2014-15 season, defending the rim will have plenty to do with UK’s chances of winning in Allen Fieldhouse. The Wildcats steamrolled KU, 72-40, in Indianapolis, blocking 11 shots in the process.
This season, with a different roster, Kentucky is swatting 6.3 shots a game in wins, and only 3.8 in losses.
No, UK doesn’t have the kind of devastating team it has in past years under Calipari, with future NBA All-Stars such as Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins or (eventual all-star) Karl-Anthony Towns. But according to DraftExpress.com, there are five soon-to-be NBA draft picks on the Kentucky roster.
(The site also projects three Jayhawks in the upcoming June draft: Cheick Diallo 21st, Svi Mykhailiuk 25th, Wayne Selden Jr. 55th.)
For a non-conference, regular-season game in late January, Calipari might have said it best:
“This will be a war.”
Meet the Wildcats the Jayhawks have to worry about Saturday night, when KU (2,169 wins) will try to get a little closer to college basketball’s all-time winningest program, Kentucky (2,194).
No. 23 — G Jamal Murray | 6-4, 207, fr.
- No. 9 pick in 2016 NBA Draft, according to DraftExpress.com
The most deadly 3-point shooter in the building on Saturday night might be freshman Jamal Murray (17.5 points per game), who has made 53 of 140 from downtown this season (37.9%).
The reigning SEC Freshman of the Week (18.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in two wins) has made at least one 3-pointer in every game this season. Murray averages 2.7 successful 3-pointers a game.
Scored 33 points (27 in the second half) vs. Ohio State, the 2nd-highest individual total in the Calipari era. Murray drilled 7 from 3-point range in the loss.
Murray is tied for the team lead with 25 steals this season, and ranks 3rd among UK players in offensive rebounds, with 30.
No. 3 — PG Tyler Ulis | 5-9, 160, soph.
- No. 47 pick in 2016 NBA Draft, according to DraftExpress.com
Kentucky’s offense runs through the capable hands of sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis (15.5 points, 6.1 assists), who rarely comes off the floor (35.8 minutes). According to Calipari, Ulis is one of the best floor generals he has ever coached.
Ullis, like Murray, has 25 steals. Unlike Murray, he’s not quite as dangerous from 3-point range: 27 of 88 (30.7%).
Still, Ulis has put up 20 or more points in 7 of the last 9 games for UK — including each of the past 3 wins.
In Kentucky’s easy defeat of Missouri, Ulis became the first Wildcat with at least 4 assists in 13 straight games since Sean Woods did it in the 1990-91 season.
Some guys spend too much time taking 2-point jumpers. Ulis isn’t one of them. He shoots 48.8% on shots inside the arc that don’t come at the rim. He has made 44 of 91 2-point jumpers, per hoop-math.com.
No. 22 — F Alex Poythress | 6-8, 230, sr.
The old man of the bunch, senior Alex Poythress was a McDonald’s All-American in 2012, and already has a degree in business marketing. Poythress tore an ACL in December of 2014, perhaps prolonging his college career, but has played well this season for UK.
Poythress is averaging 9.7 points and a team-best 6.6 rebounds a game, but Calipari thinks he is capable of even more, as UK tries to peak in the weeks ahead: “We need Alex to keep taking strides, like keep getting better. Not be consistent — get better.”
The active veteran forward averages 2.1 offensive boards a game, is shooting 59% on the year and has made 56 baskets at the rim.
Scored a career-high 25 points at Alabama.
In UK victories, Poythress and Marcus Lee are combining for 14.1 rebounds per game. That number for the duo drops to 9.0 in losses.
No. 35 — F Derek Willis | 6-9, 220, jr.
Junior Derek Willis just recently joined UK’s starting five, and is coming on of late. Willis averages 6.8 points and 3.8 boards on the year.
During the last 4 games, Willis is averaging 12.3 points and a team-leading 10.0 boards.
Willis dominated against Missouri, posting a new career high, with 18 points, as well as a game-high 12 rebounds.
In just his 2nd start of the season, Willis provided 12 points and 7 rebounds in UK’s win at Arkansas, where he also blocked a career-best 4 shots.
In his first 40 games for UK, Willis scored 77 total points. He has 94 points in his past 14 games.
By the way, Willis can shoot. He drilled 4 of 5 from 3-point range vs. Mizzou and has connected on 24 of 57 from deep this season (42.1%).
When opponents foul this big man, Willis makes them pay. He doesn’t get to the foul line a lot, but he has made 24 consecutive entering the game at KU. Willis has made all 16 of his free throws this season and has hit 31 of 34 (91.2%) in his career.
No. 13 — G Isaiah Briscoe | 6-3, 202, fr.
- No. 31 pick in 2016 NBA Draft, according to DraftExpress.com
A young guard who attacks the glass, freshman Isaiah Briscoe averages 5.3 rebounds and 10.2 points.
Briscoe shoots a high percentage overall (45.8%), despite taking too many 3-pointers (4 of 25, 16%).
The attacking guard has made 52 shots at the rim this season and has converted on 59.1% of his attempts inside.
A consensus top-15 recruit in the Class of 2015, Briscoe has produced some big games here and there for UK, including a 14-point/5-assist showing vs. Mississippi State.
Ripped 4 steals in a win over Ole Miss.
No. 00 — F Marcus Lee | 6-9, 224, jr.
- No. 56 pick in 2016 NBA Draft, according to DraftExpress.com
This Kentucky front line might not be as imposing as those of other recent Calipari juggernauts, but junior substitute Marcus Lee does his share of defending the rim for UK. Lee leads the team with 1.8 blocks per game.
Lee spent most of the season as a starter, but now comes in off the bench. He averages 7.2 points and 6.5 rebounds, and does much of his damage on the offensive glass, leading to his team-leading 64.0% field goal percentage.
Lee averages a team-leading 2.9 offensive boards a game, and ranks first on the team with 23 put-backs.
Foul trouble vs. LSU and an injury vs. UCLA meant Lee only played a combined 9 minutes in those 2 games, and Kentucky lost both of them.
In Kentucky victories, Lee averages 7.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and shoots 66.7% …
… But in losses, Lee has put up just 3.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and shot 46.2% from the field.
No. 1 — F Skal Labissiere | 6-11, 225, fr.
- No. 6 overall pick in 2016 NBA Draft, according to DraftExpress.com
If you think about it, freshman big Skal Labissiere is Kentucky’s version of (a more succesful) Cheick Diallo. Labissiere projects as his team’s best future pro, but hasn’t caught up with the speed of the college game enough to garner major playing time.
Perhaps a lottery pick in June, Labissiere currently averages 7.7 points and a truly disappointing 2.9 rebounds in 17.3 minutes a game.
Labissiere does block some shots inside, though: 1.7 a game.
Against an overmatched Mizzou team, Labissiere scored 12 points and swatted 5 shots, a new career high.
Picked by the media to the preseason All-SEC first team, Labissiere started the first 11 games of the season, but has come off the bench since late December. The 6-11 freshman played single-digit minutes in recent league games against Alabama, Auburn and Vanderbilt.