LEXINGTON, Ky. — Consider it message delivered.
Facing its biggest opportunity in the national spotlight since a season-opening blowout loss to Duke, Kentucky put the college basketball world on alert that this team is no longer the one from that embarrassing November night in Indianapolis.
With ESPN’s College GameDay in town, No. 9 Kentucky rallied from an early deficit to secure its third consecutive win over a ranked team with a 71-63 victory over No. 10 Kansas.
Kentucky hit just three of its first 19 shots and fell behind by as many as 10 points in the first half before rallying to pull within three at 33-30 at halftime. The Wildcats then scored the first five points of the second half to take their first lead in more than 16 minutes of game action.
Graduate student Reid Travis was one of the few Wildcats not to hit a cold spell early — hitting 5 of 8 shots in the first half while his teammates combined to go 8 for 31 — but his teammates were able to pick up the slack after he was forced to the bench with three fouls with 15:32 left in the game, stretching the lead by four points by the time he returned to the lineup more than four minutes later.
Kentucky never trailed again in the game as Travis (18 points, 12 rebounds) and sophomore forward PJ Washington (20 points, 13 rebounds) combined for 38 points and 25 rebounds. Freshman forward Keldon Johnson added 15 points and 7 boards.
Freshman point guard Ashton Hagans contributed 12 points, 7 assists and 3 steals.
College basketball winners and losers: Duke keeps winning, but flaws keep getting exposed
“The Duke game was a lifetime ago, it seems like,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said before the game. “So, that was an anomaly and it was probably the best Duke has played and it was the worst Kentucky has played. … They’re way better now than they were then. They’re better defensively. I think they’re better offensively too.”
Bilas called the Kansas game the “next test” and “not a final exam” for Kentucky, but Wildcat fans will hope the team has finally found the form consistently that saw it ranked No. 2 entering the season.
“I know Kentucky is going to be a different team in a month than they are now as long as everybody stays healthy,” Bilas said. “So, when you give an assessment of this is where the team is now, it’s not like you’re saying, ‘OK, that’s it, that’s the end of the growth.’ That’s never been the case, especially here.”
Here’s what we learned from the Kentucky win:
• Defense wins championships: When UK was struggling against lesser opponents early in the season, John Calipari repeatedly pointed to the team’s defensive shortcomings as the problem, not missed shots. His players backed up that theory Saturday by staying in the game early despite being ice cold from the field. Kentucky was able to hang around despite missing 16 of its first 19 shots because it held Kansas to just 36.1 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range in the first half. Key in that defensive performance were six blocks and three steals in the first half. The Wildcats cannot count on winning many games if they shoot as poorly as they did for much of the first half, but the progress this squad has made on defense in recent weeks offers hope even nights the offense struggles.
• Big men lead the way: Reserve big men Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery have recently won praise for their progress, but Travis and Washington proved once again Saturday they will retain the lion’s share of minutes in Kentucky’s post rotation moving forward. Against a Kansas team that lost starting 7-footer Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending injury earlier this month, the duo outmuscled the Jayhawks’ big men for most of the game. Washington’s and Travis’ success led Kentucky to a 38-20 advantage in points in the paint.
• No room for complacency: Facing questions about its ability to beat quality opponents a month ago, Kentucky responded by snagging back-to-back wins against North Carolina and Louisville but then reverted in a loss at Alabama and less-than-inspiring home wins against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Calipari theorized at the time his young players might have grown complacent after the big wins. Now, the Wildcats will face a similar task after sweeping games against ranked foes Auburn, Mississippi State and Kansas in the first regular-season stretch of three games against ranked teams since 2005-06, but the schedule gets little easier from here. A trip to Vanderbilt on Tuesday appears to be a likely win, but the Commodores, who have lost seven straight, recently played No. 1 Tennessee to overtime. From there, Kentucky faces a five-game stretch against Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi State, LSU and Tennessee. Only South Carolina of that group is ranked outside KenPom.com’s top 30, but the Gamecocks have won five of their first six SEC games.