LEXINGTON, Ky. – His team trailing by nine points and his only reliable big man in foul trouble, Bill Self switched his Kansas team into a zone defense late in the first half against Kentucky.
The Jayhawks promptly gave up an open foul-line jump shot to De’Aaron Fox that he swished, making the score 31-20.
And that was the last easy possession the Wildcats had against the Kansas zone for a small eternity – certainly long enough to let the game slip away.
Self loves dabbling in exotic defenses, sprinkling in a combination look like a triangle-and-two. He did a little of that Saturday night, but mostly it was a standard 2-3 zone Kansas deployed – not with great distinction, but with great effectiveness.
“There’s not going to be any educational tapes made off that zone tonight,” Self allowed.
He’s right. Kansas often played hands-down defense, not exactly looking like vintage Syracuse out there. Yet even a not-very-good zone was still good enough to throw the brakes on run-and-gun Kentucky, confuse the young Wildcats and generally bring John Calipari’s offense to a stumbling halt in a 79-73 Kansas triumph.
“We don’t switch defenses much,” Self said. “Tonight we did more than we have in a long time.”
Because it worked. Kentucky all but turned into a pillar of salt for several stretches against the zone.
And thus we arrive at the two big takeaways from this game.
For the winners: the Jayhawks (19-2) showed their veteran poise and focus, rallying from a dozen down on the road, without suspended big man Carlton Bragg and beneath the cloud of an ongoing rape investigation stemming from an encounter in the men’s basketball dorm last month.
For the losers: the Wildcats (17-4), for all their talent, showed that they’re still not terribly adept at pausing, grinding and thinking their way through the game when the going gets tough. They’ve got the highlight-reel stuff down when the game is a track meet, but chess matches and alley fights aren’t exactly their thing just yet.
For Kansas, this wasn’t just an emphatic bounce-back from a road loss to West Virginia; it was a victory after losing one of just two reliable interior players in Bragg. Senior Landen Lucas was pretty much on his own, and battled Kentucky five-star freshman Bam Adebayo to a draw (13 points and five rebounds for Lucas, 10 points and eight rebounds for Adebayo).
“Without Landen,” said Jayhawks freshman Josh Jackson, “I don’t know where we’d be.”
Self had to supplement Lucas with Mississippi transfer Dwight Coleby and freshman Mitch Lightfoot, two guys who had a combined 10 DNPs in Kansas’ last eight games. They did their job well enough defensively to keep Kentucky from establishing an effective inside-out offensive game.
It’s also significant that Self had the best freshman on the floor Saturday – not Calipari and his annual armada of blue chippers. Jackson was assertive, confident and clutch in racking up 20 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in 39 minutes of play.
“To me, he’s a complete basketball player,” Self said. “… He’s very competitive. He’s very active and has a nose for the ball.”
The vexing issue for Kentucky is whether its freshmen have a head for the game. Malik Monk and Fox are a gloriously talented backcourt, but against quality opposition they sprinkle in enough unwise possessions to undercut their effectiveness.
In the Wildcats’ last three losses, to Louisville, Tennessee and Kansas, Fox and Monk have combined for 16 assists and 21 turnovers. Monk has shot 6-for-28 from 3-point range in those games – and while his shooting from deep wasn’t as bad against the Jayhawks (2 for 6) the problem was a prolonged absence from the offense.
After scoring 12 points in the first half – 10 of them in the first 9 ½ minutes – he didn’t score again until 3:11 remained in the game and Kentucky trailed by eight points.
“You can’t play seven, eight minutes without him getting a shot,” Calipari said.
And yet Kentucky did, bamboozled by a fairly mediocre Kansas zone that served one purpose: making the ‘Cats work and think.
“Switching up the zone was just mainly to slow them down,” Jackson said. “It played into our favor to turn it into a half-court game. Going to zone really helped us with that.”
Any Kentucky loss is an invitation for the fans to overreact. Two straight losses is a green light to panic, especially with a team some thought might replicate the brilliance of Calipari’s best freshman-led UK teams in 2012 and ’15.
“They stink,” Cal said of his back-to-back defeats, while trying to maintain perspective.
It’s a long season, and the talent is abundant in Lexington. But this freshman class isn’t ready to beat the best yet.
That goes far beyond the inconsistencies of Monk and Fox, and extends past the hide-and-seek dominance of Adebayo. It includes Wenyen Gabriel, Rivals.com’s No. 13 recruit in the class of 2016, who currently resembles a displaced track athlete more than a skilled basketball player. Gabriel has launched six 3-pointers in the past two games, missing them all, and recorded his first scoreless college game Saturday. And it includes power forward Sacha Killeya-Jones, the Rivals.com No. 24 recruit who is simply not part of the rotation and has played a total of 12 minutes since Dec. 11.
Thus Calipari is engaged in another developmental race against the calendar, hoping that February will be the time when this group transforms from good into great. The 10-1 start seems a long time ago right now.
“This is always a process,” Calipari said. “In ’14, we were dying and then we got it at one point, and we took off (advancing to the NCAA tournament title game). This team came together a little faster, and then that execution we’ve been talking about comes back to haunt us.”
It was Kansas that executed at crunch time Saturday. The Jayhawks have some serious issues to deal with going forward – more off the court than on it – but Bill Self can dabble defensively and rely on his veterans (plus one phenomenal freshman) to win big games.