Josh Jackson finished 20 points, 10 boards, three assists and two steals – including a layup after an offensive rebound with a minute left to put the Jayhawks up 73-66 – and Frank Mason III added 21 points and four assists as No. 2 Kansas shook off a blowout loss at West Virginia by going into Rupp Arena and knocking off No. 4 Kentucky, 79-73.
The Jayhawks were beaten up for much of the first half, trailing 29-19 at one point and finishing the first 20 minutes without hitting a three-pointer, but Josh Jackson sparked a run early in the second half that gave Kansas the lead.
Derek Willis was Kentucky’s leading scorer, finishing with 18 points, five boards and two blocks and hitting 5-of-6 from three. Malik Monk hit his first five shots of the game, scoring 12 points in the first nine minutes as it looked like he was getting ready to have another monster game, but he would miss his next six shots and didn’t score against until there were three minutes left. Combined, Fox and Monk finished with just 28 points and four assists – the average better than 37 per game – while turning the ball over seven times.
The loss is Kentucky’s second this week, as they fell at Tennessee on Tuesday night.
Here are four things we learned on Saturday afternoon:
1. The Kansas back court gets the attention, but Josh Jackson might be their best player: Look, I love Frank Mason more than just about anyone. I’m on the chairman of the ‘#BIFM for Player of the Year’ committee, but after seeing the way that Jackson played this week, I’m having a hard time convincing myself that Jackson isn’t the best player on Kansas.
He was certainly the best player on the floor for the Jayhawks on Saturday. He kept them close in the first half, as Kansas struggled to find any kind of consistency on the offensive end. He hit a pair of threes – both of which, it should be noted, came off of assists from Mason – early in the second half that put Kansas in the lead. He was the matchup nightmare at the four that he needs to be for this Kansas team to be great, and when the Jayhawks went to a zone in the middle of the first half, he was active and meddlesome there as well. And, perhaps most importantly, he grabbed a critical offensive rebound and scored a second-chance bucket with 1:05 left that put Kansas ahead 71-66. That was the back-breaker.
You won’t find a better leader or a better point guard anywhere in the country than Mason, which is why, when Jackson plays like he did tonight, Kansas is so scary.
2. Kansas won this game by playing zone: It’s weird, I know, but it’s true. And it might end up being their best defense this season. Bill Self went to a zone early in the second half as his team was struggling with fouls and with their one-on-one matchups, and it changed the course of the game. Kentucky struggled to break down the defense, whether it was failing to hit their open threes or making poor passes against the zone.
It leads me into my next point …
3. … Landen Lucas outplayed Bam Adebayo: The key matchup in this game was Landen Lucas vs. Bam Adebayo, and, in an upset, Lucas won that battle. Adebayo had ten points and eight boards, but he was just 3-for-7 from the floor (and 4-for-10 from the line) and turned the ball over four times; Lucas had 11 of his 13 points in the second half and, more importantly, played 27 minutes before fouling out with 38.7 seconds left.
Lucas provided a major boost offensively, which was not exactly expected, but it was far from a one-man job on the defensive end of the floor, as the Kansas zone took away Adebayo’s presence in the paint. Kentucky struggled to find ways to get him the ball in places where he could be effective, and when they did, the Jayhawks would swarm him. Adebayo is all power, but that power can be negated by a defense that sends two or three guys at him.
Oddly enough, I think that 2-3 zone may end up being the best defense that the Jayhawks will play this season. Think about it: when they play four guards, they have two terrific at the top in Mason and Devonte’ Graham, and the wins in that zone will be two of Svi Mykhailiuk, LaGerald Vick and Jackson. Those three and more than enough length and athleticism to contest three-point shooters and compete on the glass. Not only that, but the zone should help save some of the wear-and-tear on the legs of their guards and protect Lucas from getting into foul trouble when he’s isolated on the block.
I don’t, in any way, expect Self to go to it as his primary defense.
But as a change of pace? As something to throw a team like Kentucky off-balance? It’s a great weapon to have in his arsenal.
4. This is why we’ve been talking about the lack of half-court offense for the Wildcats: Kentucky looked like they were ready to blow the doors off of Kansas in the first 10 minutes of this game. They were getting out and running in transition. Monk was hitting everything. They were clicking.
And then Kansas was able to force them into a possession by possession game. With five minutes left in the first half, the Wildcats were up 29-19. They were outscored 56-37 over the next 25 minutes of gametime, and it’s not a coincidence the Kansas run came at a time when Fox and Monk struggled to find ways to score.
Granted, this is Kansas. There’s a reason they entered this game ranked No. 2 in the country. That said, all we’ve done for the last four days is trash the Jayhawk defense. They were 39th nationally in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, entering Saturday while Kentucky had the nation’s second-best offense. If the Jayhawks couldn’t win that battle, how are they going to do it against the rest of the nation’s elite teams?