Kansas averaged 92 points in its first two games during a 1-1 start before the gravity of what the No. 7 Jayhawks are replacing finally seemed to be catching up with them in a showdown with No. 20 Kentucky on Tuesday night. The Wildcats held Kansas to just five points in the first 10 minutes, and suddenly it seemed painfully clear how much the Jayhawks miss last season's star duo of Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike.
But that's when another star emerged for Kansas. Redshirt freshman forward Jalen Wilson exploded to score 21 of his 23 points in the second half to lead the Jayhawks back from a 13-point first half deficit and to an 65-62 win over Kentucky in Indianapolis as part of the Champions Classic.
Wilson's offensive outburst breathed life into a Kansas team that hit just 30% of its shots as senior leader Marcus Garrett dealt with an illness that appeared to limit his stamina. In the end, though, a familiar recipe helped Kansas close the deal: defense. The Jayhawks held Kentucky to just 3-of-21 shooting from 3-point range as the Wildcats suffered their second straight loss.
Freshman center Isaiah Jackson starred for Kentucky with 12 rebounds, eight blocks and seven points. But just as it did in Sunday's 76-64 loss to Richmond, Kentucky suffered from offensive woes down the stretch.
Kansas' Wilson shines
Wilson had already emerged as a key player for Kansas early this season after missing all but two games last year due to injury. But the former No. 53 prospect in the 2019 recruiting class looked like a budding star against the Wildcats. At 6-foot-8, his combination of physicality and athleticism created a mismatch with Kentucky defenders that allowed him to create his own shots and rescue a struggling Kansas offense.
When Wilson picked up his fourth foul after scoring 11 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half, he checked out with Kansas holding a 44-42 lead. The Jayhawks did not convert a shot from the field for three and a half minutes while Wilson sat due to his foul trouble. He scored the team's next bucket -- a 3-pointer with 5:29 left -- that gave Kansas the lead again. When Ochai Agbaji hit a 3-pointer for Kansas with 2:45 left, it was the first field goal of the half for the Jayhawks by someone other than Wilson.
Kansas absolutely still misses Dotson and Azubuike and has a long way to go offensively. But Wilson provided an encouraging bit of hope on Tuesday by putting the team on his back and showing that he may be an overlooked gem in a Big 12 that is loaded with talent.
Kentucky can't shoot
Just two days after missing all 10 of its 3-point attempts in a loss to Richmond, the Wildcats' woes from the outside continued. Kentucky's three made 3-pointers came from their bench, with little-used reserve Dontaie Allen hitting a 3-pointer in the first half before Creighton transfer Davion Mintz hit a pair of treys in the second half.
But if the Wildcats are going to challenge for an SEC or national title, they will need to find some better shooting, especially from their starting lineup. Early on, much of their offense came on second-chance points and points off turnovers. But after committing eight turnovers in the first nine minutes, Kansas turned it over just three more times for the rest of the game, which limited Kentucky's opportunities for fast-break points.
Ultimately, a pair of unnecessary fouls on starting center Olivier Sarr also cost Kentucky. The Wake Forest transfer was the Wildcats' most-efficient scorer with a 4-for-6 night from the floor. But he logged just 14 minutes after picking up a pair of undisciplined fouls in the second half.
At first glance, Kentucky's 22-2 margin in bench points suggests that the Jayhawks got nothing of substance from their bench. But redshirt freshman Dajuan Harris provided a major spark for Kansas with five assists and four steals in 25 minutes off the bench. His contributions as a facilitator and defender were especially welcome as Garrett battled an illness during the game.
Much like Wilson, Harris was a four-star prospect in the 2019 class who redshirted last season and fell under the radar entering the 2020-21 campaign. But if the role both played on Tuesday was any indication, then Kansas has a couple of studs from last year's recruiting class poised to make a big impact this season.