Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The No. 4 Kansas Jayhawks added a marquee win to their early resume Tuesday with a 65-61 victory over the No. 7 Kentucky Wildcats in the Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago.
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk led the way with 17 points, and Udoka Azubuike dominated down low for stretches with 13 points and eight rebounds.
While Mykhailiuk was the high scorer for Kansas, Malik Newman added 12 points, three of which came on a clutch three-pointer with just more than two minutes remaining to go ahead by four. He also calmly drilled two free throws with 17 seconds left before Devonte’ Graham clinched it with two free throws of his own.
Kansas improved to 2-0 on the campaign, while Kevin Knox and Kentucky fell to 2-1 after closer-than-expected wins over Utah Valley (10 points) and Vermont (four points). Knox finished with 20 points and seven boards but didn’t receive enough help elsewhere against the Kansas defense.
Beating Kentucky is always impressive, but it was even more so for the Jayhawks because they played without freshman Billy Preston, who 247Sports deemed a 5-star prospect.
Head coach Bill Self announced before the contest Preston was involved in a single-car accident with no injuries, and the school said it held him out because it “needed a clearer financial picture specific to the vehicle.”
The big man’s absence didn’t stop Kansas from dominating on the boards in the early going with 15 offensive rebounds in the first half. While Kentucky closed the gap before the two sides each ended up with 39 total rebounds, the initial burst helped the Jayhawks survive lackluster shooting.
Kansas shot 35.3 percent from field and 28.6 percent from three-point range, which allowed the young Wildcats to stay within striking distance throughout the contest despite 18 turnovers and general sloppy play.
The silver lining offensively for the Jayhawks was their balanced attack. They assisted on 17 of their 24 field goals, as four starters scored in double figures. Graham tallied 11 points and was the primary facilitator with five assists, while Kentucky couldn’t stop Azubuike down low (5-of-5 from the field) unless it fouled him (3-of-8 from the charity stripe).
The balance wasn’t there for the Wildcats, who consistently looked to Knox to bail them out when they weren’t turning it over.
Hamidou Diallo was the only other Kentucky starter to score more than six points and the only other player in double figures with 14, but even he was just 4-of-11 from the field. At least the Wildcats had Knox, who proved unstoppable for stretches and had Sam Vecenie of The Athletic looking ahead to even better things for the freshman:
Sam Vecenie @Sam_Vecenie
Kevin Knox’s jumper is rolling right now. He’s going to be a good shooter one day. He can hit 3s now, but he’s going to be a REALLY good shooter, I mean.
Even with Knox scoring, the Jayhawks appeared well on their way to a straightforward victory when they jumped out to a 20-9 lead in the opening seven minutes. However, Kentucky used its length and athleticism on defense to challenge perimeter shooters to battle back and take the lead.
Newman’s layup gave Kansas a 34-33 halftime advantage and set the stage for a back-and-forth affair for the remainder of the game.
Neither side seized sustained momentum in the second half thanks to Kansas’ poor shooting and Kentucky’s turnover problems, but the Jayhawks fought through the stale stretches and ended the contest on a 10-4 run after Nick Richards’ layup gave the Wildcats the 57-55 lead.
Both teams will look to build momentum during upcoming winnable stretches following Tuesday’s high-profile contest.
Kentucky will face East Tennessee State on Friday before games against Troy and Fort Wayne, while Kansas will play South Dakota State on Friday and then Texas Southern and Oakland.