As John Calipari said earlier this month, a team cannot learn about itself playing “Popcorn State.”
So Tuesday night’s game between college basketball’s two winningest programs — Kentucky and Kansas — figured to be a Masters’ course in basketball learning.
Kansas saw it that way. “You’re playing against quality people to where you can be exposed to certain things you know you’ve got to get better at,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said Sunday. “(Without such games) sometimes you get a false sense of who you are.”
Though losing 65-61, Kentucky showed an abundance of resolve.
Kansas, the No. 4-ranked team in the nation, hammered UK on the boards in the first half. Presumably after some hot halftime rhetoric from Calipari, the Cats returned the favor in the second half.
“If we’d done that in the first half, it’d probably have made a difference,” said Kevin Knox, who led UK with 20 points. “If we can keep playing like that, later on in the year we’re going to be really good.”
Knox attributed UK’s better second-half rebounding and resolve to pride. He made it sound like the UK freshmen are already tired of hearing about their lack of experience.
“A lot of people had us losing this game at least by 20 or 30 points,” he said. “But we said before the game we weren’t letting that happen.
“They’re a veteran team. We’re a really young team. A lot of people thought they had the advantage. But tonight we really could have won the game.”
UK’s on-ball defense, which Calipari panned after Vermont point guard Trae Bell-Haynes had his way with the Cats on Sunday, surely passed this test.
Kansas point guard Devonte’ Graham, the preseason choice to be the Big 12 Conference Player of the Year, made only three of 14 shots and committed five turnovers.
Graham came through in the clutch, making two free throws with 7.1 seconds left to clinch the victory for Kansas.
“I thought we did a much better job staying in front of people,” Calipari said. “There was a conscious effort to say, ‘Hey, man, we can’t let this happen.’”
Maybe seldom had a halftime deficit looked so good for Kentucky. The Cats trailed only 34-33 despite being out-rebounded 24-13 and grabbing only one offensive rebound in the first half.
Kansas had more offensive rebounds (15) than Kentucky had total rebounds (13). The Jayhawks cashed that dominance in to the tune of a 15-2 advantage in second-chance points.
“I was stunned we were down (only) one at halftime …,” Calipari said. “But I was very clear. If we didn’t rebound, we’d have no chance at winning the game.”
With 4:21 left, UK looked for more inside presence from Tai Wynyard. Calipari had said that the expected test of muscle around the basket might suit the son of a New Zealander lumberjack. He contributed only one foul.
Yet, Kentucky showed more of the resilience that helped beat Utah Valley and Vermont in last weekend’s first two games of the season.
Despite leading for only 13 seconds of the first half, Kentucky kept competing. The Cats trailed for more than 17 of the 20 minutes, twice by a double-digit margin in the early going.
But defense and Kansas carelessness kept Kentucky in the game. Kansas made only 13 of 38 shots. UK blocked six shots.
Kansas had eight turnovers, which enabled Kentucky to turn on its much-preferred transition game.
The beginning of the second half brought a reversal of fortune. UK had three offensive rebounds before the first TV timeout (and Kansas had none). That put the Cats ahead 40-39. Kansas did not have an offensive rebound in the first 11 minutes of the second half.
Foul issues gave Kentucky further chance to show its resolve. Nick Richards and Hamidou Diallo picked up their third fouls within 32 seconds. Both went to the bench with more than 17 minutes left.
Wenyen Gabriel picked up his third foul at the 14:07 mark.
Kentucky continued to control the backboards through mid-way of the second half. Kansas did not have an offensive rebound in the first 11 minutes. UK had five (and a 6-0 edge in second-chance points) in that span.
Yet Kansas kept it a half-court game, thus execution counted. A pretty pick-and-roll with Graham yielded an Azubuike dunk that put Kansas ahead 51-45 with 9:12 left. UK called time to contemplate its largest second-half deficit.
Though Kentucky came up short, Calipari sounded like a coach who saw his team make progress in what UK hopes will be a season-long transformation from collection of star recruits to legitimate national contender.
“We’re a ways away from what we need to be,” Calipari said. “But to play a game like this in that environment and have a chance to win? Wow. A bunch of freshmen did pretty good.”
East Tennessee State at Kentucky
7 p.m. Friday (SEC)