When you boast the self-professed greatest tradition in the history of college basketball, there is no such thing as a moral victory.
Even for Kentucky, however, there are things you can like in a loss. Such was the case Tuesday night when John Calipari’s impossibly young and seventh-ranked Wildcats fell to the more experienced and fourth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks 65-61 in a grinder of a Champions Classic game at the United Center.
First off, you had to like the Cats’ fight. When Kentucky fell behind 20-9 within the game’s first seven minutes, the feel was that of an impending blowout. “I know people were picking us to lose by 20-30 points,” said UK forward Kevin Knox afterward.
I plead guilty to believing that was within the realm of possibility. Kentucky had struggled with its first opponents, trailing by nine at the half against Utah Valley, then squeaking out a four-point win over Vermont. Kansas owned a star senior guard in Devonte’ Graham, a mammoth post presence in Udoka Azubuike and plenty of talent on the wings.
Yet in its first test on a big stage under the brightest of national television lights, the Cats didn’t wilt. They fought back for a 33-32 lead with 2:14 left in the first half. They shrugged off chronic deficits in the second half. When Knox scored inside off a Sacha Killeya-Jones high-low assist with 1:54 left, Kentucky trailed 61-59.
To reach that point, Kentucky had to execute a rebound turnaround. First half, Kentucky was crushed 24-13 on the boards. After a Calipari halftime challenge, Kentucky grabbed nine of the first 10 second-half rebounds, and by night’s end the stat sheet showed a 39-39 category tie.
Killeya-Jones had much to do with that. A forgotten freshman glued to the bench the second half of last season, the North Carolina native has made an early sophomore surge. Tuesday, he contributed eight points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. He showed the grit Calipari cherishes.
As crazy as it sounds, you had to like the real reason Kentucky lost Tuesday night. Kentucky committed 18 turnovers, while Kansas committed 11. Almost always, young teams commit more turnovers at the beginning of the season when freshmen are adjusting to the speed of the game and the nuances of a new offense. Many of UK’s errors were of an AAU variety that won’t fly in NCAA basketball. Those can be fixed.
True, a loss is a loss is a loss. But as Kansas Coach Bill Self said Tuesday night, an affair like the Champions Classic is a win-win for all four teams even when they lose. “A couple of years when we lost here, I think we ended up being a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed,” he said.
Speaking of No. 1, top-ranked Duke looked legit in beating No. 2 Michigan State 88-81 in Tuesday’s first game. The Blue Devils did so with just 10 minutes from fab freshman Marvin Bagley III, who departed after being poked in the eye. The losing Spartans also showed they were deserving of their ranking.
Meanwhile, Kansas can certainly shoot the ball better. The Jayhawks shot just 35.3 percent from the floor and 28.6 percent (eight-of-28) from three-point range. Graham missed 11 of his 14 shots. Newman missed 10 of his 14. Lagerald Vick missed nine of his 13.
“We can play better,” said Self, who was also without the services of freshman Billy Preston, who is being held out of action while the university takes a closer look at the finances behind his car.
Kentucky can and will play better. After the first two performances, a UK fan had plenty of reason to be nervous, maybe even fearful about this team’s prospects. After Tuesday, that fan had to feel a whole lot better, even in a loss.