College Basketball: Kentucky Wildcats defense and surprising teams so far
8:26 | College Basketball
College Basketball: Kentucky Wildcats defense and surprising teams so far
Sunday December 14th, 2014

It’s been nearly a month since Kansas suffered the most lopsided loss of Bill Self’s tenure. Have the Jayhawks made any progress?

In hindsight, the 32-point beatdown Kentucky laid on Bill Self’s team at the Champions Classic isn’t particularly surprising. At 11-0, the Wildcats have been so dominant that the undefeated talk already feels like a cliché. If any team could make a preseason top 10 team look like any old nonconference tomato can, it was this Kentucky squad.

But over the last few weeks, Kansas has built a convincing case that the Champions Classic obliteration was an aberration. Saturday’s 63-60 win over Utah in Kansas City extended the Jayhawks’ winning streak to seven. Among the teams Kansas has beaten over that stretch are Big East contender Georgetown and a Michigan State team ranked 14th in Ken Pomeroy’s team efficiency ratings.

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The win over the Utes could go down as the Jayhawks’ most impressive nonconference victory both because of the quality of opponent and the manner in which it transpired.

When Jamari Traylor converted a free throw early in the second half to give Kansas a 21-point lead, it appeared the Jayhawks would cruise to a seventh consecutive victory. Then, Utah mounted a furious comeback to take the lead with less than five minutes remaining. Instead of fading down the stretch, Kansas got a series of stops coupled with clutch free throw shooting to pull out the three-point win.

One can give Kansas credit for getting a result against a tough opponent while also acknowledging that the Jayhawks were largely outplayed in the second half. Even it it didn’t transpire as smoothly as it appeared it would at halftime, Kansas managed to clear its toughest remaining nonconference hurdle.

For Utah, this is a tough loss considering its effort after the break. Even though the Utes fell short in the end, their mettle in a road game against a top-15 team only validated their status as the top challenger to Arizona in the Pac-12.

Delon Wright was particularly impressive. The senior guard finished with a game-high 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting, grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists. Facing a team with multiple (likely) future first round draft picks, Wright looked liked the best player on the floor for much of the game (it bears mentioning that Wright, too, is projected to be selected by an NBA team).

Consider this dunk he threw down over multiple defenders. In the final minute of the first half, Wright used a slick crossover dribble to dart past Cliff Alexander before exploding for a powerful one-handed jam.

Wright is not the only reason Utah has emerged as one of the top teams in the West. Jakob Poeltl, a 7-foot freshman, entered Saturday leading the nation with a 20.7 offensive rebounding percentage while averaging 11.3 points and posting an effective field goal percentage that ranks among the nation’s top 30.

Meanwhile, the Utes have played the last five games without their second-best player, 6-foot-6 forward Jordan Loveridge. That stretch included noteworthy wins over No. 11 Wichita State and at BYU. With Loveridge expected back during conference play, the Utes could be an even more formidable challenger in the Pac 12 than they appear now.

(1) Kentucky 84, (21) North Carolina 70

Kentucky-North Carolina was billed as a marquee matchup between two blueblood programs, but Saturday’s game between the two teams didn’t offer much drama. The Wildcats got 15 points apiece from Willie Cauley-Stein and Devin Booker in a 14-point win over the Tar Heels. With Alex Poythress lost for the season due to an ACL tear, Trey Lyles was inserted into the starting lineup. The freshman forward scored nine points on 4-of-6 shooting and grabbed three rebounds in 23 minutes.

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One of the most encouraging aspects of this victory for Kentucky was its three-point shooting. The Wildcats entered Saturday ranked 305th nationally in three-point field goal percentage (27.7), but knocked down a season-high 46.7 percent of their long-range tries against North Carolina (including three apiece from Booker and Aaron Harrison). Kentucky already ranks second in the country in offensive efficiency on the strength of a deep, athletic lineup that rebounds its own misses and converts more than 75 percent of its field goal attempts around the rim. More effective three-point shooting would give opponents yet another thing to worry about.

The Wildcats face UCLA on a neutral court next Saturday before a road matchup with Louisville on Dec. 27. That latter game poses a serious threat to Kentucky’s unbeaten streak (assuming it gets past the Bruins).

(3) Arizona 80, Michigan 53

The Wolverines’ slide continues. 

John Beilein’s team had suffered consecutive home losses to conference-less N.J.I.T. and Mid-American Conference foe Eastern Michigan. Saturday’s loss in Tuscon, Ariz., did nothing to ease concerns over the Wolverines as they hit the closing stretch of their nonconference schedule and prepare for Big Ten play.

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The Wildcats shot 58.2 percent from the field and had five players in double figures -- including 17 points and seven rebounds from freshman Stanley Johnson -- while limiting the Wolverines to 35.2 percent shooting. Arizona took an 11-point lead into halftime before blowing the game open shortly after the break. When Michigan called its first timeout at the 17:13 mark, Arizona led by 20 points and by the 7:38 mark, the Wildcats had built a 32-point advantage.

The Wolverines have some time to get their bearings before the start of the conference season, but right now there’s little to suggest they’re on the verge of turning a corner. When N.J.I.T beat Michigan at Crisler Arena, it wouldn't have been unreasonable to file it away as a wacky upset that the Wolverines would promptly leave behind them. 

It’s apparent that the loss to the Highlanders was a sign of things to come. 

(9) Gonzaga 87, UCLA 74

Gonzaga dropped a road game against a Pac-12 team (Arizona) earlier this month but the Zags made easy work of UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles on Saturday. Kyle Wiltjer knocked down three of his five three-point attempts and finished with a team high 24 points. Wiltjer added four rebounds as Gonzaga shot 58.5 percent from the field and 47.4 percent from three-point range while limiting the Bruins to 41.7 and 47.4, respectively. The Zags may have lost their perfect record in Tuscon, but they continue to look like top-three seed material and shouldn’t suffer many defeats during West Coast Conference play. UCLA was outmatched and its next opponent -- Kentucky at the CBSSports Classic on Dec. 20 -- represents an even greater challenge.

Oregon 77, Illinois 70

Illinois has now lost three of its last four games. At the United Center in Chicago on Saturday, the Illini had trouble limiting Oregon freshman forward Dillon Brooks, who scored a game-high 24 points on 9-for-15 shooting to go with five points and four assists. The Ducks also got 10 points and seven rebounds from forward Elgin Cook and 15 points off the bench from guard Michael Young. This is the best win Dana Altman’s team has notched so far this season and the Ducks dropped previous games to Michigan, VCU and Ole Miss. Illinois has slipped since winning the Las Vegas Invitational last month, but a manageable upcoming schedule should allow John Groce’s team to get back on track before the start of conference play.

VCU 93, (23) Northern Iowa 87 (2OT)

Northern Iowa’s unbeaten run is over. The Panthers entered Saturday with a 9-0 record and nearly notched an impressive road win against A-10 favorite VCU despite getting only five points in a season-low 21 minutes from senior forward Seth Tuttle. Junior guard Wes Washpun picked up the scoring slack for Ben Jacobson’s team, notching 27 points on 9-for-14 shooting and five rebounds off the bench. Treveon Graham led VCU with 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Briante Weber had 14 points and six steals. For a VCU team that suffered a humbling, 17-point loss at home to Virginia earlier this month, beating Northern Iowa marks is an encouraging step forward. Meanwhile, the Panthers, who look like Wichita State’s top challenger in the Missouri Valley Conference, get a week off before taking on in-state foe Iowa on a neutral court.

Saint Mary’s 71, Creighton 67 (OT)

Creighton’s impressive start to the season is one of the reasons why the Big East has outperformed preseason expectations. On Saturday, the Bluejays were upset at home by a Saint Mary’s team that entered Saturday with no impressive wins to speak of and ranked 86th in Ken Pomeroy’s team efficiency ratings (30 spots higher than Creighton). Stanford transfer Aaron Bright scored a season-high 22 points on 8-for-14 shooting, and senior guard Kerry Carter added 19 points, four steals and four rebounds. This was the toughest remaining contest on Creighton’s nonconference schedule. The Jays face upcoming games against Texas Pan American and North Texas before traveling to Providence on New Year’s Eve for their Big East opener.

(11) Wichita State 77, Detroit 68

Darius Carter helped Wichita State erase a double-digit, second-half deficit and secure an 11-point win. With the Shockers trailing by 10 and around 11 minutes remaining, Carter stepped up by scoring 14 points down the stretch. The senior forward finished with 18 points and a team-high 11 rebounds, while guard Ron Baker had a team-high 19 points, seven rebounds and three assists. The win improved Wichita State’s record to 7-1; the Shockers’ only loss came by one point in overtime at Utah.

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