Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 71-63 win over Kansas on Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge:
1. Kentucky’s defensive improvement is legit
Over what is now a six-game winning streak, the Cats have shot up the defensive efficiency charts. That should continue after another stellar effort in which John Calipari’s club held the Jayhawks to 36.5-percent shooting from the floor. Kansas was nine of 23 from beyond the three-point line, but was just 14 of 40 inside the arc and was outscored in the paint 38-20.
That final stat was the difference. UK had the advantage underneath the basket and exploited on both ends of the floor. The Cats’ 6-foot-8 forward PJ Washington finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds. His frontcourt partner Reid Travis, also 6-8, added 18 points and 12 boards. The two helped hold Kansas’ leading scorer, the smooth 6-9 Dedric Lawson in check. Lawson had 20 points and 15 rebounds, but he didn’t go nuts.
“A lot of times we were fighting 2-on-1 in there,” said Kansas Coach Bill Self, who has gone with a four-guard lineup since center Udoka Azubuike tore a ligament in his hand seven games ago shelving the rest of his season.
Kansas is the fourth UK opponent in the last five to fail to hit 40 percent from the floor. Vanderbilt shot 36.2 percent; Georgia 30.4; Mississippi State 31.1 and now Kansas’ 36.5. (The outlier is Auburn which shot 46.4 at home in its 82-80 loss to the Cats.) Kansas missed a lot of shots, and Kentucky grabbed a lot of rebounds. The Cats won the glass 49-36. Keldon Johnson joined the double-double parade with 15 points and 10 rebounds. In fact, Calipari said afterward he would have played Nick Richards more — the sophomore blocked five shots in nine minutes — but Richards couldn’t grab enough rebounds.
There was an interesting thing Washington said after the Mississippi State game. He said that early in the year, players were defending just their own man. Now, they are defending “two men over” as well. They are helping. They are rotating. The result is the kind of defense that wins games like the one Saturday.
2. Reid Travis sets the tone
The graduate transfer from Stanford had played the Jayhawks before. On Dec. 3, 2016, he scored 29 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the Cardinal’s 89-74 loss to the Jayhawks in Lawrence. Last season, he had 12 points and four rebounds in KU’s 75-54 rout of Stanford in Palo Alto. When asked Friday about those games, Travis’ first word was “physical.”
So Saturday, Travis got physical right back. After UK fell behind 16-6 early, the Minneapolis native almost single-handily got the Cats back into the game with muscle. At 9:16, he scored off a rebound while being fouled, then made the free throw. At 7:47, he scored again inside. At 7:25, he scored in transition while being fouled, though he missed the free throw. At 5:39, he scored off a rebound while being fouled, though he again missed the free throw. Didn’t matter. The tone was set.
Travis is not the most explosive player around the basket. He can’t jump out of the gym. But he’s smart about using body to gain position, and crafty about his moves. And he studies. After the game, he made the point that he knew Kansas’ Lawson plays a lot of minutes, therefore the Jayhawks’ best player didn’t want to get into foul trouble. Translation: Travis knew he could be effective by taking the ball right to Lawson.
It helps when you get help, of course. Washington more than stepped up on the offensive end, finishing with those 20 points and 13 boards. That’s back-to-back 20-or-more point games for the sophomore. Calipari praised Washington for having a spirit together. And Washington said afterward the game was special because he had played with Lawson before and the two families are friends.
That’s outside the lines, of course. On the floor, Kentucky wanted to be physical with the Jayhawks from the jump. That was the plan. And the Cats carried out that plan, thanks in large part to their graduate transfer.
3. National stage should bring national praise
You could say that these Cats are about to come full circle. They began the season No. 2 behind Duke in the rankings. After that 34-point “shellacking,” as Calipari called it by Duke, plus other early struggles, Kentucky fell in the polls and off a lot of people’s radars. Since the win over North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic, the Cats have been on the march back to where they were before. “A gradual climb,” Calipari said Saturday.
No. 8 in the AP Top 25 before the Kansas win, UK should move up the ladder a bit on Monday. What means more, of course, is the way the team is playing. It has not only won six straight, but won three straight games over ranked teams — No. 14 Auburn, No. 22 Mississippi State and No. 9 Kansas. The win over Auburn was a road win. The win over Mississippi State was by 21 points. The win over Kansas saw UK outscore the Jayhawks 41-30 in the second half.
A disclaimer: Kansas is not the Kansas it was with Azubuike. Self is hoping the NCAA will any day now rule 6-9 sophomore Silvio de Sousa eligible just to give Lawson some support under the basket. His four-guard lineup is shaky, especially against better teams. He doesn’t have a Frank Mason or Devonte Graham in his backcourt. He has freshmen in Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes. It doesn’t help when senior Lagerald Vick is held to just 10 points — six of those coming on a pair of late threes — by Tyler Herro’s defense.
But, hey, Herro is a freshman. So is Johnson. And Ashton Hagans. They are freshmen getting better for a team that is getting better, and starting to show the things we saw that gave Big Blue Nation such hope coming out of the Bahamas.