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  • The Wildcats have won six straight games and are starting to show flashes of the team they were expected to be entering the season.
By Tristan Jung
January 26, 2019

The marquee matchup of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge turned into a defensive battle, but Kentucky dominated the paint and prevailed 71–63 in Rupp Arena. 

The AP Poll's preseason No. 1 and No. 2 both struggled to hit outside shots on the night. Kentucky's vaunted freshman guards made up for it on defense, shutting down Kansas' Lagerald Vick and Devon Dotson. Kentucky has now won six straight games and looked every bit the national championship contender that fans and pundits expected to begin the year. With this performance, it's hard to argue against the Wildcats as one of the best starting fives in the nation. Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro couldn't buy a three on Saturday night, but Reid Travis and PJ Washington stepped up with 38 points and 25 boards between them.

Both teams got off to an ugly start in the first half. The Wildcats were unable to find any offensive rhythm in the half-court, allowing Kansas to take a 16–6 lead after 10 minutes. Travis kept Kentucky in it, though, and a strong defensive effort prevented Kansas from pulling away.

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Dedric Lawson was able to notch a double-double in the first half, but Kansas only found itself up 33–30. Kentucky did not make a three in the first half and was lucky to only be down three at intermission. 

The Wildcats' offense finally churned into motion in the second half, as Keldon Johnson hit the home team's first three of the game to make it 35–33. Kentucky's depth and defensive pressure stymied Kansas. With Hagans and Herro off, Washington and Johnson were able to pick up the slack. Lawson was the only reliable option for Kansas throughout the game.

Offensive inconsistency has plagued Bill Self's squad since center Udoka Azubuike was ruled out for the season after tearing ligaments in his right hand. The Jayhawks' lack of offensive momentum allowed the Wildcats to stick around early and halted any attempt of a comeback in the second half. Kentucky, on the other hand, found a way to manufacture points despite shooting 22 percent from three and losing the turnover battle 11–8. 

Three Takeaways

1. Kansas's offense has major issues

In fairness, Kentucky's defense is very good. It limited Mississippi State to 55 points four days ago and has been lights-out in the last month or so. But once Kansas went down by multiple possessions on Saturday, it felt somewhat over. Forward Dedric Lawson (20 points, 15 rebounds) was productive yet again, but he can't carry the Jayhawks alone, especially if he's shooting under 30% from three, as he has for the season. Lawson was hitting his jumpers on Saturday, but Kansas as a team still had issues getting anything going. Vick hit two threes late, but otherwise it was a tough night for the senior. Sophomore Marcus Garrett shot an ugly 1-of-9 from the field with three bad turnovers. As a team, the Jayhawks averaged 0.9 points per possession, a number significantly helped by some garbage-time make. The Azubuike injury was always going to loom large, but Kansas is going to have serious trouble in Big 12 play, and more importantly the NCAA tournament, with this level of offensive inefficiency. 

2. Calipari ends a three-game losing streak to Kansas

The last time Kentucky had beaten Kansas, Karl-Anthony Towns was still in college. Kentucky was favored in this game, but it was a sweet win for Calipari and his players heading back into SEC play. After a slightly disappointing 10–3 start that included losses to Duke, Seton Hall and Alabama, Kentucky has reeled off six straight and hasn’t really been tested. This is the team we expected at the beginning of the season when they were ranked No. 2 in the AP preseason poll. The three key freshmen, Herro, Hagans and Johnson, have made great strides since then. The Wildcats are now 5–0 against the current AP Top 25, with wins over Kansas, UNC, Auburn, Mississippi State and Louisville. 

3. PJ Washington is a force to be reckoned with

Kentucky is built around its freshmen guards, but Washington's improvement on offense has given the Wildcats options when shots aren't falling. The sophomore forward scored 20 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. He missed four three-point opportunities but made up for it with his scoring in the paint. Everything has improved for Washington from last year. His free throw shooting, assist rate and rebounding rates are all up. After getting embarrassed in the opener against Duke, Washington has grown into a somewhat reliable scorer, which gives Kentucky a deadly starting five heading down the stretch.

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