Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s loss to Kansas in SEC/Big 12 Challenge

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 77-68 loss to the Kansas Jayhawks in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Saturday night at Rupp Arena.

1. It was a pride thing

I wrote in a blog post that Kansas entered Saturday’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge showcase game with Kentucky much like Kentucky came into its game at Tennessee two weeks ago. UK had lost two straight — one a blowout on the road at Alabama, one a humbling loss at home to South Carolina. Kansas had lost three straight, albeit to ranked teams. But the Jayhawks had never lost four in a row under Bill Self. They still haven’t.

“I think it’s a pride thing,” the Kansas coach said after his team’s nine-point win. “The win they got at Tennessee was similar to the one we got tonight.”

The Jayhawks earned it. With the Cats on a four-game win streak and a blue-blood program in town on a Saturday night, Rupp Arena was packed and loud, but it apparently was not intimidating.

“I actually believe our guys perform better in an en environment like that,” Self said.

Kansas certainly excelled on the boards. KU won the glass 34-29, just the fifth time this season Kentucky has been outrebounded. (The Cats have lost all five.) The nation’s best offensive rebounding team by percentage, John Calipari’s club did not have a single offensive rebound in the first half. It finished the night with just four offensive boards. And zero second-chance points.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Calipari said.

Pre-Kansas, Kentucky’s offensive rebounding percentage was 38.8. Against the Jayhawks it was 13.3, the fourth-lowest percentage in the Calipari era.

“We haven’t rebounded like that all year,” Self said. “We did a great job on the glass tonight.”

Consider that in its 75-69 victory over Kansas on Monday night in Waco, Baylor grabbed 17 offensive rebounds.

So while both teams shot similar percentages from the floor — Kansas 49.2; Kentucky 49.0 — the Jayhawks took 12 more shots than their hosts. Kansas was 31 of 63 from the floor. Kentucky was 25 of 51, including 2 of 13 from three-point range.

And down the stretch, Kansas hit three big three-point shots to win it. Gradey Dick’s three-pointer at the 4:47 mark made it 67-62 Kansas. Jalen Wilson’s three with 3:06 left made it 70-64 Kansas. And with 3:07 left, Kevin McCullar buried a three from the right wing with the shot clock ticking down to give Kansas a 73-66 lead. And basically the game.

2. Kentucky was again victimized by ball screens

In a question-and-answer with the media two weeks ago, UK assistant coach Brusier Flint bristled at the idea that Alabama and South Carolina had used a new successful strategy of putting UK center Oscar Tshiebwe in ball screens on the defensive end. Every team, Flint said, tries to put Tshiebwe in ball screens.

There’s a reason for that. Teams have had success in putting Tshiebwe and his teammates in ball screens and pick-and-roll actions. And either Kentucky has grown worse in defending those looks or opponents have grown better at exploiting that particular weakness.

Time and again, Kansas was able to pull the Cats into screens and then attack the basket. “I’ll be candid, we hoped to attack them on the pick-and-roll, but we were just praying on the rebounding,” Self said, before adding, “Our points off ball screens had to be close to 20 tonight.”

In the first half, Kansas’ backup center Ernest Udeh not once but twice dunked off pick-and-rolls. In the second half, Jayhawks’ starting center RJ Adams dunked off a pick-and-roll with 17:03 left and later jammed home an in-bounds pass as Calipari was complaining to the official about a foul call.

So why did Kentucky have so much trouble in that particular aspect of the game?

“There are two pieces to that,” Calipari said, explaining that (1) at times UK defenders were not playing off the correct shooters to help on the screens and (2) at times the Cats were not being physical enough.

“We got knocked off point,” Calipari said. “We’ll have to look at the tape to see what was happening.”

But it keeps happening. It’s one reason Kentucky entered the game 58th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy. That isn’t likely to improve. Kansas averaged 1.104 points per possession.

Kentucky forwards Oscar Tshiebwe, left, and Jacob Toppin walk off the court after their team’s loss to Kansas at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky forwards Oscar Tshiebwe, left, and Jacob Toppin walk off the court after their team’s loss to Kansas at Rupp Arena.

3. The loss wasn’t a season-killer, but it didn’t help

Kentucky is now 1-6 in all-important Quad 1 games according to the NCAA NET computer rankings. The one win came at Tennessee. The losses have come against Michigan State, Gonzaga, UCLA, Missouri, Alabama and now Kansas.

“We’ve got a lot of games to go,” Calipari said. “It’s a marathon. We’ve just got to keep getting better.”

Now 14-7, the Cats have 10 regular-season games remaining. And while the schedule softens a bit in February, that means there are fewer opportunities for the Cats to impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee on the way to Selection Sunday.

In fact, Kentucky is likely to face just two ranked teams the rest of the way. Tennessee comes to Rupp on Feb. 18. A week later, Bruce Pearl and Auburn visit Rupp on Feb. 25. Arkansas had been a possibility. The Cats have two games remaining against the Razorbacks. But like Kentucky, Eric Musselman’s team has fallen out of the top 25.

Make no mistake, Kansas is an excellent team. Despite the three losses, the Jayhawks are ranked No. 9. And the Big 12 is clearly the nation’s best conference. It trounced the SEC 7-3 in this year’s Challenge. Losing to Kansas is no disgrace. Even at home.

It does dent UK’s momentum, however. The four-game win streak is snapped. The Cats’ confidence has undoubtedly ebbed. “We wanted to get this one,” Calipari said.

Kansas wanted it more.

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