It might be hard to remember now amid Zion Williamson mania, but Kansas and Kentucky started this college basketball season as the top two teams in the polls. On Saturday, they faced off in Lexington each in need of a signature victory to reaffirm their place in the national title picture.
Kentucky was the team that got it. The Wildcats pulled away late in the second half to secure a 71-63 victory in the marquee game of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. It’s the Wildcats’ sixth straight win. Kansas, meanwhile, has now lost two of its last three.
This game was close for much of the way, but it wasn’t always pretty. Neither shot above 40 percent from the field. Kentucky did most of its damage from the paint and at the foul line (17-of-23 on free throws), while Kansas tried and failed to comeback with three-pointers behind a four-guard lineup that got eaten alive in the paint.
Here are three things we learned from the game. Despite UK’s win, the Big 12 won the challenge 6-4. Find all the scores here.
1. Kentucky’s front line dominated
The starting front court of P.J. Washington and Reid Travis powered the Wildcats to this victory. Washington finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds as he continues his breakout sophomore campaign. Travis, the grad transfer from Stanford, was every bit as effective, finishing with 18 points and 12 rebounds on 7-of-11 shooting from the floor.
Kansas simply isn’t the same team without injured center Udoka Azubuike, who was lost for the year with a hand injury. Azubuike’s massive 280-pound frame would have came in handy against the Wildcats. Without him, Bill Self started four guards and tried to beat Kentucky with speed and shooting. It didn’t work.
Kentucky pounded Kansas on the glass, 50-36. At least for a night, size reigned supreme in college basketball.
2. Kansas doesn’t have the depth it thought it did
Azubuike’s absence hung over this game from the opening tip, but he’s not the only one the Jayhawks are missing. Silvio De Sousa, a bouncy 6’9 forward, was also supposed to provide depth in the front court before being suspended for his part in the FBI’s investigation into corruption throughout college basketball.
Mitch Lightfoot and Charlie Moore were also supposed to give Kansas depth, but Self chose not to play them. It’s so bad for Self that he had to burn the redshirt he planned to use on Ochai Agbaji just to get enough healthy players on the floor.
What looked like one of the deepest teams in the country in the preseason now has a serious need for bodies.
3. Kentucky’s freshmen are starting to come on
The Wildcats are always defined by their freshmen, but this year’s group isn’t as strong as you might expect from Kentucky. To be fair, players like Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander set a pretty high bar.
It might have taken some time, but Calipari finally has his freshmen clicking. Start with Keldon Johnson, Kentucky’s lone projected lottery pick, who went for 15 points and 10 rebounds while continuing to give the Wildcats the outside shooting they desperately need. Ashton Hagans continued his defensive dominance from the point guard spot, ripping Kansas for three steals and also adding 12 points. Hagans now has 34 steals in his last nine games. He might be the toughest perimeter defender in the country.
Herro had a tough night (2-of-9 from the floor), but he has been solid lately, scoring 20 points against Auburn and 18 points against Mississippi State in his last two games.
If Kentucky’s freshmen start balling, a run to the Final Four could be in the cards. If nothing else, they looked a class higher than Kansas on Saturday afternoon in their current iteration.