CHICAGO — Not much digging is required to unearth positives in Kentucky’s 65-61 loss to fourth-ranked Kansas on Tuesday night in the Champions Classic. In fact, one sticks out like a 6-foot-10 forward with his long arms raised high in the air.
Sacha Killeya-Jones, buried on the bench as a freshman, followed up two solid games to open his sophomore season with the best performance of his college career: 8 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 assists in 23 minutes off the bench against the Jayhawks.
He helped the seventh-ranked Wildcats (2-1) erase an early 11-point deficit and then gave Kentucky a chance at the end with an out-of-nowhere offensive rebound and bucket with 8 seconds to go.
“He’s getting better and better,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I mean, you have to understand: He was one of the youngest freshmen in the country a year ago. He was 17. So now he’s 18 years old — basically a freshman.”
Killeya-Jones missed all three of his free throws, oddly, but he sank 4 of 6 shots from the field Tuesday, including a couple of deep jump shots that touched nothing but net.
“I think they played eight McDonald’s All-Americans tonight. [Only five, but eight former 5-star recruits]. Everybody can play, so it didn’t surprise me at all with Sacha,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “But I certainly didn’t anticipate him stepping out and making a couple 18-footers.”
Lucky for Kentucky he did, because starting center Nick Richards — a raw rookie — negated his 9 rebounds in 13 minutes by staying in constant foul trouble and being a liability on the offensive end. Killeya-Jones has been there before.
One of those former McDonald’s All-Americans, he had a crisis of confidence last season and didn’t log a minute in the Wildcats’ final 19 games. Killeya-Jones played 96 total minutes as a freshman, totaling 40 points, 31 rebounds and 10 blocks.
He’s already played 56 minutes through three games as a sophomore and produced 18 points, 15 rebounds and 4 blocks — shooting 63.6 percent from the field.
“In practice, he’s been working his butt off, been hitting that mid-range shot that he hit tonight,” said freshman star Kevin Knox, who took over the game himself in stretches and led UK with 20 points. “He’s hitting that consistently now in practice, rebounding his butt off, playing hard, playing with energy on the defensive end and blocking shots.
“Like Cal said: You do it in practice, it’s going to translate to the game. If he keeps it up, I can see him getting a lot more minutes.”
Killeya-Jones’ personal trainer predicted this breakthrough season back in the spring, when he was back home putting in unseen hours to get his mind and body ready for the rigors of a long college basketball season.
“He’s focused, he’s driven, he understands what he has to do now, and he has a plan,” Gilbert Abraham, who has worked with NBA players and trained Killeya-Jones since the ninth grade, told SEC Country six months ago.
That looks prophetic now. So while the Wildcats sure would’ve liked to leave the United Center with a signature victory, Calipari seemed generally encouraged by all the positives from a team without a single junior or senior.
They can build on Knox’s big night. They can build on outrebounding Kansas by 9 in the second half. They can build on holding Kansas star Devonte’ Graham to 3 of 14 shooting with 5 turnovers.
And they can surely take what Killeya-Jones gave them — against a top-5 team away from home on national TV — and run with that. If there has been a revelation for this young Kentucky team so far, it’s him.
“I was just fighting,” Killeya-Jones said, and that’s a helluva start.