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Champions Classic: No. 4 Kansas ekes out a win over a fun but raw Kentucky team

It wasn’t pretty, but it was informative. We got to know a lot of what No. 4 Kansas and No. 7 Kentucky can and can’t do. These teams are not at their typical best, not right now and perhaps not for most of the season to come. They can be plenty good, but nothing was put out by either squad on Tuesday night that indicated the Jayhawks or Wildcats will have historic teams this season. 

KU got a 65-61 victory against UK on Tuesday in the nightcap of the Champions Classic. The Jayhawks are 2-0, while UK (2-1) took its first loss of the season. 

The intrigue with this game wasn’t merely the big-brand programs squaring off, in addition to the Hall of Fame coaches. It was the athleticism, length and youth of Kentucky getting tested against a four-guard offense from Kansas that’s veteran-led, notably by senior Devonte’ Graham, who could be a national Player of the Year candidate as the season rolls on.

“We shot the ball like crap tonight — at least I did,” Graham said on ESPN afterward. 

He finished with 11 points, five assists and the clinching free throws on Kansas’ final possession. 

The teams looked rusty from the start. Kentucky was out of sorts at times, but on the whole showed itself to be better than a lot of people expected. That said, it doesn’t bode well that UK shooting 42 percent from the field and 23 percent from 3-point range indicates a better-than-expected night from the field. Oddly, Kentucky’s bigs were a letdown. Sacha Killeya-Jones was the only big who showed up and managed against KU’s depleted front line, finishing with eight points and nine boards.

Freshmen Nick Richards and P.J. Washington combined for four points and seven turnovers. UK forward Kevin Knox had 20 points, his best game yet in scoring for UK, including 3 for 6 from point range. Knox is establishing himself as the go-to scorer for UK. In crunch time, he’s likely to become the necessary focal point to give Kentucky its best chance to win.

Kansas won ugly, essentially, and while Bill Self will take the W, he probably has concern about his guards shooting 18 for 59 against a long but inexperienced Kentucky club. Kentucky’s point-guard play, from Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, remains a work-in-progress for Calipari. 

Kansas got the cushion it needed in the final two minutes when sophomore Malik Newman hit a 3 with 2:10 to go to make it 61-57, Jayhawks. Then Knox missed a 10-footer from the right baseline that would have tied it with 19 seconds to go.

Missing in action on Tuesday: Kansas freshman Billy Preston. An ongoing review of the financial particulars regarding a car Preston was driving on Saturday — that he got into an accident with — prevented him from playing in the game. 

As for this series, Kansas is on a roll vs. Kentucky. The Jayhawks have won three straight the past three seasons vs. the Wildcats. If the teams wind up playing each other again in regular-season play, the 2018-19 season could mean they face off in the annual late-January SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

Matt Norlander

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