The No. 7 Kansas Jayhawks made it two wins in a row against the No. 20 Kentucky Wildcats at the Champions Classic, claiming a 65-62 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana on Tuesday.
After dropping its season-opener to No. 1 Gonzaga, the Jayhawks have now bounced back with two straight victories. KU last defeated Kentucky at the Champions Classic in 2017 when the event visited the United Center in Chicago.
For the Wildcats, it's a second straight loss after a stunning home upset defeat to Richmond at Rupp Arena on November 29. The start of the season has been less than ideal for head coach John Calipari's program as it followed a season-opening victory over Morehead State with a canceled contest against Detroit before it faced Richmond.
The Jayhawks were led by Jalen Wilson with 23 points points as head coach Bill Self continues to tinker with a five-guard lineup.
Jalen Wilson, F, Kansas Jayhawks: 23 points, 10 rebounds
Ochai Agbaji, G, Kansas Jayhawks: 17 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists
Brandon Boston, G, Kentucky Wildcats: 12 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist
Olivier Sarr, F, Kentucky Wildcats: 8 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist
KU’s Big Problem
Until the Jayhawks can develop a reliable post presence, performances like Tuesday night’s could become common for Kansas.
KU struggled to create offense all night. Driving to the rim didn’t work. Three-pointers weren't falling, either. KU finished shooting 29.9 percent from the field (5-21 from three) and received just two points from its bench compared to 22 for Kentucky.
The lack of a consistent big in the front court cost KU early as starting forward David McCormack was unable to establish himself against the length Kentucky boasts. McCormack was virtually unplayable for Kansas, posting four points in nine minutes during the first half with two turnovers on 1-4 shooting. He finished 1-9 from the field with seven points and five rebounds.
Even when he tried to create space for KU to drive to the lane, he wasn’t able to seal off his man, which translated to 12 blocks for Kentucky.
That forced Kansas head coach Bill Self to return to a five-guard lineup he deployed in the first two games of the season. With McCormack on the bench, Self gave minutes to freshman guard Dajuan Harris, who sparked the offense with two steals and two assists in the first half to finish with five assists and four steals.
Between Harris and a late, breakout performance from Jalen Wilson, the Jayhawks were able to pull ahead late and recover from a 13-point deficit in the first half.
In the meantime, McCormack will need to develop his game in the paint and hope Kansas can keep grinding out wins until he's able to assert himself on both ends of the floor.
Kentucky's Costly Slump
A bad loss against Richmond has snowballed into a bad loss against Kansas.
Its debatable which one feels worse.
On a night Kansas couldn't get anything to work on offense until late in the second half, UK watched its own offense collapse to the tune of 26.7 percent shooting from the floor in the final frame after holding a double-digit lead late in the first half.
"If I was Bill Self, I'd be so happy, because my team was held to 29 percent from the floor and 23 percent from the three and we win," Calipari told reporters postgame. "I love those games, just to slog it out. Let me tell you what the did in the second half: They punked us."
Foul trouble certainly didn't help, and with two of Kentucky's more vaunted freshman on the receiving end, there was little the Wildcats could do. Terrence Clarke fouled out after missing his last four shots while Isaiah Jackson (seven points, 12 rebounds, 8 blocks) and Olivier Sarr each finished with four fouls.
That put KU at the free throw line early in the second half and allowed the Jayhawks to stay in a game it tried desperately to shoot itself out of.
Kansas shot 20-30 at the line to Kentucky's 15-20. Those extra chances made all the difference and helped the Jayhawks escape with a win.
"We did some good stuff," Calipari said. "We should've won the game. I'll put it on me. We hit the skids offensively. I'm trying to figure it out."
Kentucky's road trip continues with a matchup at 0-2 Georgia Tech on December 6 at 5 p.m. EST on ESPN before returning home to face Notre Dame on December 12 at Rupp Arena. Kansas, meanwhile, will open its home slate on Thursday at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN+ with Washburn visiting Allen Fieldhouse.