The loss ends Kentucky’s four-game winning streak and also stops the bleeding for a Kansas team that has lost three in a row, preventing head coach Bill Self from losing four straight for the first time in his 20 years with the Jayhawks. The Wildcats finished the annual SEC/Big 12 Challenge with a 6-4 overall record and will now play in the newly created SEC/ACC Challenge next season.
After numerous slow starts this year, Kentucky finally came out swinging and led 9-4 early despite missing its first three free throws. However, Kansas won the rebounding battle in the first half as the Wildcats failed to get a single offensive board and were a dismal 4-of-11 from the foul line. The Kentucky offense also did not connect on a three-pointer in the opening half as Kansas led 41-34 at halftime.
Kentucky had its biggest issue on the defensive end, giving up several easy baskets as Kansas used the high pick-and-roll to take advantage of early UK foul trouble as Oscar Tshiebwe and Jacob Toppin spent time on the bench with foul trouble.
In the second half, Kentucky’s Cason Wallace hit a three-pointer just under the 12-minute mark to cut the lead to 51-50 before Kansas answered with a three of its own and a follow-up bucket to move ahead 56-50 with 11:03 remaining.
The Wildcats connected on their first 10 free throws of the second half but were still just 2-for-11 from three point range as the Jayhawks hit several big threes over the final four minutes to steal the victory.
Tshiebwe led Kentucky with 18 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists. Toppin and Cason Wallace finished with 14 points each. The Wildcats, now 14-7, will have to bounce back with a road game on Tuesday night at Ole Miss.
Here are the four things you should know.
Kentucky loses the rebounding battle
It’s hard to imagine a team with Oscar Tshiebwe going an entire half without an offensive rebound, especially considering Kentucky is third nationally with a 38.8 offensive rebounding percentage per KenPom.com. Things didn’t get much better in the second half as Kentucky has just two offensive rebounds with 7:29 left in the game. During UK’s previous four-game winning streak, the Cats out-rebounded its opponents by a plus-13.3 margin. Tshiebwe has averaged 16.8 rebounds over the last four games and Toppin pulled down 8.3 per game.
Defense must get better to make a run in March
It seems to be feast or famine for a Kentucky defense that has done a solid job defending the three point shot, but has struggled stopping straight line drives and still struggles defending high ball screens. Wallace has been the team’s defensive leader and Toppin has been very good at times locking down key scorers. In the end, UK has to stay out of foul trouble and do a better job defending the pick-and-roll to right the ship.
Chris Livingston takes big step forward in UK offense
The freshman has often looked lost in the Kentucky offense and has bounced around in a couple of different positions before getting settled in. He was outstanding in the first half, hitting shots and getting to the basket in transition to lead UK with eight points. Livingston will have to play better defense and rebound to keep his minutes up, but the Ohio native will certainly be a big piece of the puzzle as the Wildcats get back into conference play with ten games remaining in the regular season.
Lineup combinations provide clear path for success
Over the past five games, it’s no secret that the lineup of Wallace, Fredrick, Reeves, Toppin and Tshiebwe are by far Kentucky’s most efficient lineup. However, it’s hard to keep that group on the floor for extended periods of time due to a tendency for Tshiebwe and Toppin to get into foul trouble. As a starter, Livingston has played well and Antonio Reeves seems to be a perfect fit to come off the bench to provide some momentum for the offense. In the end, Coach John Calipari has to settle in on his top seven players and ride things out in preparation for the SEC Tournament in March.
On to the next one.