John Calipari

Kentucky head coach John Calipari asks for a call during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

No. 20 Kentucky lets 21-point lead slip away, falls at Tennessee

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Leading Tennessee 34-13 with 5:46 remaining in the first half, No. 20 Kentucky looked poised to not only rebound from their loss at No. 4 Kansas but do so in impressive fashion. Things didn’t stay that way however, as the Volunteers finished the half on a 23-8 run to close the margin to six. Rick Barnes’ team continued its run of good play in the second half, going on to beat the Wildcats 84-77 in Knoxville.

Just a couple days after playing one of their best games of the season and appearing to have turned a corner even in defeat, the young Wildcats showed that there’s still plenty of progress to be made.

The difference came at the foul line, where Tennessee outscored Kentucky 30-18 with Kevin Punter responsible for 10 of those points. Punter, who adjusted his shooting motion during the offseason, has been one of the nation’s most improved players. And against Kentucky the senior produced 27 points, and while he shot just 7-for-19 from the field Punter’s ability to create plays off the bounce applied pressure to Kentucky’s half-court defense.

Add in a double-double from Armani Moore, the 6-foot-4 forward who more than held his own against the bigger Wildcats with 18 points, 13 rebounds and four assists, and Tennessee was able to change the flow of the game late in the first half and build on that in the second stanza.

This is a big win for Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes, as he looks to provide some much-needed stability for a program that has lacked that in recent years. Beating Kentucky won’t make much of a difference on Tennessee’s résumé; at this point in the season they’ll need to win the SEC tournament to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. But it does provide tangible evidence to the players (not to mention recruits) and fan base that the program is headed in the right direction.

That doesn’t help Kentucky however, and the Wildcats are still having issues when it comes to defending without fouling. Some may be quick to point out the “quality” of the whistle in recent games, but it should be noted that sending opponents to the line has been an issue throughout the year for the Wildcats. Kentucky entered Tuesday ranked 241st in defensive free throw rate (40.1), too high for a team that plays half-court man-to-man defense most of the tim.

Be it defending without fouling or communicating consistently on the defensive end, these are adjustments that have taken longer for Kentucky to work through than some anticipated before the season began.

But how much longer can John Calipari afford to wait for the Wildcats to play with consistent focus, taking care of the “small” details that can be the difference between simply playing in the NCAA tournament and excelling once there? The personnel questions are what they are at this point, with the front court production being inconsistent and the guards led by Tyler Ulis having to do much of the heavy lifting.

But Kentucky had a chance to put their foot on Tennessee’s neck late in the first half, and instead they let the Volunteers back into the game. That proved costly in Knoxville, and as a result the Wildcats dropped to two games behind first-place Texas A&M in the loss column.

‘Aggressive Wayne’ changes the equation for No. 4 Kansas

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With the two winningest programs in the history of college basketball meeting at Allen Fieldhouse, the expectation was that No. 20 Kentucky and No. 4 Kansas would put forth a good show. The two teams more than lived up to the expectations, but ultimately it was the play of Kansas junior guard Wayne Selden Jr. that made the difference.

Selden scored a career-high 33 points, shooting 12-for-20 from the field, to lead the Jayhawks to a 90-84 overtime victory.

Kansas managed to come back in spite of some subpar foul shooting, as they shot just 30-for-47 from the foul line for the game. In the second half, as the Jayhawks looked to cut into a Kentucky lead that grew to as much as eight points, Bill Self’s team made a habit of splitting trips to the foul line. But as Kentucky’s big men battled foul trouble and freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe cramps, the Jayhawks were able to mount a rally to grab the lead.

The spark was Selden, a gifted off guard who far too often seems to blend into the action as opposed to using his talents to assert himself. That wasn’t an issue against the Wildcats, as Selden was in attack mode from the start. That took its toll on Kentucky defensively, with Selden scoring Kansas’ next ten points after Kentucky took an eight-point lead with 13:54 remaining.

Kentucky played well, with point guard Tyler Ulis scoring 26 points and dishing out eight assists to lead the way. Kentucky’s a much-improved team over the last two weeks, and a big reason for that has been the play and intangibles supplied by Ulis. Coaches want leaders to emerge over the course of a season, and not only has Ulis done that but he’s also managed to take his teammates along with him.

The front court still need to be more consistent moving forward, but the progress shown by this group was evident even in defeat. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they didn’t have enough left in the tank to slow down Selden and the Jayhawks as they made their run.

Selden’s production not only applied pressure to Kentucky’s defense in the second half but it also gave his teammates the confidence needed to make plays themselves. That’s the kind of player he can be, and it’s what makes his periods of simply blending into the action so frustrating.

Kansas has talent, depth and experience, all of which was on display at various points in Saturday’s win. But if Bill Self’s team is to not only extend its streak of consecutive Big 12 regular season titles to 12 but also play deep into March, they need Selden to consistently be the “take charge” offensive option he was against Kentucky.

With the offense Kansas runs he doesn’t have to look for 25 shots a night, and the system wouldn’t work as well if he did to that level. But an aggressive Wayne Selden Jr. opens things up for the other Jayhawks, making them an even tougher team to defend as a result.

No. 20 Kentucky blows out Missouri, 88-54

Kentucky's Tyler Ulis, left, passes around Vanderbilt's Luke Kornet during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/James Crisp)
AP Photo/James Crisp
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Tyler Ulis scored 20 points, Derek Willis added a career-best 18 and No. 20 Kentucky used an early 20-0 run to blow past outmanned Missouri 88-54 on Wednesday night.

The Wildcats (16-4, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) had it easy in improving to 9-0 against the Tigers and winning their third straight overall. Kentucky spotted the Tigers an opening layup by Wes Clark before the big spurt that quickly put the game out of reach, twice stretching its lead to 40 points in the second half.

Good shooting was the key again for Kentucky, which made 52 percent from the field after hitting 55 percent against Vanderbilt.

Willis also grabbed 12 rebounds for his second double-double in four games. Isaiah Briscoe had 15 points, Skal Labissiere 12 and Jamal Murray 11 to round out Kentucky’s double-figure scorers.

Clark had 11 points for Missouri (8-12, 1-6 SEC), which sustained its biggest loss this season.