Coming into Saturday’s marquee matchup with the Kansas Jayhawks, during the John Calipari era at Kentucky, the Wildcats were 204-3 in games in which they led by at least 10 at any point (h/t to Brian Hanni for the stat).
That record fell to 204-4, as Kansas came storming back from an early 23-11 deficit to win 79-73.
Early on, the game seemed reminiscent of the 2014 game, in which Kentucky won 72-40. Kentucky looked bigger, more athletic, and was frustrating Kansas on defense. The Jayhawks scored just 17 points in the first 15 minutes of the game. Kentucky led 29-17.
Then, Kansas switched up their defense, closing the first half in a 2-3 zone. They closed the final three minutes of the half on a 7-1 run, putting them within five at the break.
The zone defense trend continued into the second half, with Kansas head coach Bill Self showing a willingness to continually switch it up, alternating between a two-three zone and a triangle-and-two zone for much of the second half.
Much of the offense was paced by Josh Jackson, who opened the second half with a pair of three-pointers to give the Jayhawks a 33-32 lead. Jackson finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds on 9-17 shooting from the floor and 2-5 from three.
Jackson is now 8 for his last 14 from downtown, and has his three-point percentage up over 32 percent on the season. If he can at least keep defenses honest with that shot, he can become a lot more difficult to guard.
But Kentucky responded with a couple of three-pointers by Derek Willis and Isaiah Briscoe. Willis was Kentucky’s zone-buster for the night, finishing with 18 points on 5-6 shooting from beyond the arc.
Kansas punched right back with some offense from Frank Mason, Landen Lucas, and, of course, Jackson, to take a 69-59 lead. Mason led the way for Kansas with 21 points and 4 assists, and Lucas played a great game on both sides of the floor, putting in 13 points, grabbing 5 rebounds, and holding Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo to 10 points and 8 rebounds.
Ketucky made Kansas sweat briefly, with some timely baskets by Malik Monk, who had 18 for the night, but Kansas held on for the win.
Devonte’ Graham added 12 points and 7 key rebounds, and Svi Mykhialiuk put in 8.
What to watch going forward: the zone defense
I tried my hardest to keep track of how many points Kansas was giving up when they were in the 2-3 zone tonight.
Unofficially, meaning by my personal tracking and counting, Kansas allowed Kentucky exactly one point per possession when they were in a 2-3 zone tonight.
Coming into Saturday’s game, Kansas gave up 98 points per 100 possessions, per sports-reference.com. Obviously, that translates to .98 points per possession.
So in that sense, Kansas’ defensive performance out of the zone might not seem that impressive. However, it does when you consider that Kentucky was scoring almost 1.2 points per possession coming into Saturday’s game, and that Kentucky scored 1.03 points per possession for the entirety of Saturday’s game.
So, they were obviously more effective in the zone, than out of it. For a team that has struggled defensively, it’s definitely worth trying some more, especially with Carlton Bragg being suspended. With Bragg sidelined, Kansas is really only six deep. Playing a zone not only saves energy, allowing Self to play his five best guys heavy minutes, but it also would, in theory, prevent Landen Lucas from picking up some cheap fouls.
Kansas continues their season at home against Baylor this Wednesday, a team pretty familiar with zone defenses since they play one themselves.