Without going back and reading a bunch of them, I’m assuming my Champions Classic posts have a similar theme every year: that wasn’t pretty basketball. Most years it is at least competitive, but despite the big-time matchup, it rarely has the same juice as a March tournament game.
Chalk that up for another year, with #1 KU outlasting Kentucky by five last night.
It was a game of swings.
KU opened up ahead 8–0 then 11–3. Some of us were cautiously thinking this could, finally, be payback for the Cats’ destruction of the Jayhawks back in 2014.
As always, such thoughts were noticed by the Hoops Gods, and Kentucky started hitting just about every three they threw up, disrupting KU’s offense, and charged back, leading by double digits before Hunter Dickinson swished a three at the halftime buzzer to cut UK’s lead to seven at the break.
I was pretty chill during the first half. Yes, KU was out of sorts and had totally abandoned looking inside. But Kentucky was a bunch of (super-talented) freshman, Bill Self >>> John Calipari when it comes to actual coaching, and the second half would be much different.
Thus it made total sense that UK doubled their led in about three minutes because what the hell do I know about basketball?
To say I was not enthused was an understatement. I was dreading how a team that couldn’t hang with a bunch of kids playing their first marquee college game would matchup with Marquette/UCLA/Tennessee/Purdue next week in Hawaii.
Then Self did some of that coaching shit, though, and the game flipped.
The KU offense inverted, sending Dickinson out high with KJ Adams low or DaJuan Harris in the mid-post, and KU started getting shots at the rim and slicing into the deficit.
The last 10 minutes were straight fun. KU comes all the way back, and even takes a brief lead, before falling behind by six with around four minutes. KJ Adams had just fouled out, Kevin McCullar had four fouls, and several of the KU players looked frightened to shoot. This did not bode well for my Jayhawks’ hopes.
Then something crazy happened: Harris scored eight points in one minute of game time, draining consecutive 3’s then hitting two free throws. KU never trailed again as their defense pretty much shut down everything UK tried to do, closing the game on a 14–3 run.
Worth noting this comeback, while with lower stakes, came on the same court, and going the same direction on that court, as KU’s massive second half against Miami that propelled them to the Final Four two years ago.
Also cool was Dickinson absolutely dominating without trying very hard. 27 points, 21 rebounds. Yes, UK was missing all three of their biggest players. Even so, this game was a sign of what Dickinson can do.
Kevin McCullar had a bad game in some ways, shooting horrifically from outside and with a few bad turnovers. Yet it will go down in history as the third recorded triple double in KU history as he scored 12, had 10 assists, and grabbing the final UK miss right before the game ended for his 10th rebound. He’s going to be a feast-or-famine player offensively all season. This game shows how good he can be even when the shots aren’t falling.
DaJuan Harris told the world a week ago, after taking just one shot in KU’s first two games, he was saving his shots for when the team needed them. I guess we should have listened to him. He cashed a 3 on the game’s first possession, and hit five-in-a-row before a desperation heave at the end of the shot clock missed badly. I don’t think going 5-for–5 will be normal, but as always, if he can take and hit a few every night, that will open up so much for the offense.
The bench was trash. Just straight, hot garbage. Four combined points in 37 player minutes, and two of those were free throws by freshman Jamari McDowell in the final 10 seconds. A lot to work on here. Johnny Furphy will get better. Hopefully the other guys can, too.
Play of the game? Had to be McCullar throwing a half-court lob to Adams, who jammed it home from a near-impossible angle. KJ is low-key one of the best dunkers in KU history, combining Udoka Azubuike’s power with Andrew Wiggins’ leaping ability.
— Kansas Men’s Basketball (@KUHoops) November 15, 2023
Another theme for these annual posts is that I’m not sure what you take from these games. Kentucky was far from full strength. This win will still look really good in March when seeding time comes around. Cal might still fuck it up, but seems like he finally had a class of outstanding freshman who can actually play together. We’ll see if he can keep them on the same page when their bigs come back.
KU took some punches and responded as they should against a team filled with first-year players. The shooting and depth will be issues all year, but it feels like most of the Jayhawks other struggles Tuesday were things that will be cleared up with more time together. The offense, which has more pro-sets than ever to play to Dickinson’s strengths, was often very slow to develop. The defense was solid much of the game, but I would expect them to have forced more than eight turnovers from a team playing almost all freshmen.
The Jayhawks have now won four-in-a-row in the Champions Classic, tied with Duke at 8–5 overall in the series. KU has now won six of the last eight versus Kentucky. More importantly, after the NCAA sanctions knocked KU back behind UK in the all time wins ledger, this was a huge game in re-claiming that title, something Bill Self mentioned early in his postgame comments.
It was a big night. But there are plenty more big nights to come this year.