Utah presents KU with toughest defensive obstacle since Kentucky
Kansas has scraped its way through some offensive struggles to win three close games against tough opponents.
Another is waiting in the Kansas City Shootout, but the event might not live up to its name with No. 13 Utah possibly presenting the 10th-ranked Jayhawks with their toughest defensive obstacle since they were embarrassed by the top team in the country nearly a month ago.
Kansas (7-1) has won six straight since its 32-point loss to Kentucky on Nov. 18, though victories over Michigan State, Florida and at Georgetown have come with a 38.7-percent shooting mark. Utah (7-1) has limited opponents to 35.8 percent.
"They'll be hard to guard and they'll guard us well," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "Certainly, it'll be a tough game. I really believe this could be as tough a non-conference game we've played other than obviously Kentucky."
The Jayhawks made due in Wednesday's 75-70 win over the Hoyas by connecting on 10 of 17 from 3-point range. Brannen Greene was 5 for 5 from long range for a career-high 19 points in 18 minutes off the bench.
"According to him, if I let him play he could do it almost every night," Self said. "But he seems like he's been focused of late."
That time could be coming as the starting five collectively continued to struggle, going 11 for 34 as Frank Mason III scored a season-high 14 points and Perry Ellis added 13 and 10 rebounds.
Ellis was just 4 of 15, and the junior forward has connected on 37.0 percent over four games. He's shooting 42.2 percent for the season after managing a 54.9-percent mark in his breakout sophomore campaign.
"We haven't outscored anybody yet," Self said. "That's not one way we've won."
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The Utes have varied their methods a bit more with the occasional offensive outburst, but they've remained consistent defensively by not allowing any of their last seven opponents to shoot better than 38.1 percent.
"I think we're one of the better defensive teams in the nation and for sure one of the better in our league," said coach Larry Krystkowiak, whose team will be facing a second top-10 opponent in three games.
That 38.1 percent mark came in a 69-68 overtime home win over then-No. 8 Wichita State on Dec. 3.
Utah followed up that effort with Wednesday's 65-61 win at BYU with Delon Wright leading the way with 18 points and 11 rebounds. The 6-foot-5 guard is averaging 17.2 points on 67.3 percent shooting during Utah's six-game winning streak.
"He's a pro," Self said.
The Utes last won at least seven straight on an eight-game run from Jan. 27-Feb. 25, 2009.
Along with Wright, Utah boasts touted freshman Jakob Poeltl. The 7-footer has settled in with an average of 13.3 points and 9.5 rebounds in his last four games.
"They're good and they're deep," Self said. "They can play a lot of people and they can stretch it at most every spot."
Kansas won't have to contend with Utah forward Jordan Loveridge, who has missed four games and had surgery to clean up some loose material under his kneecap. Loveridge, Utah's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer last season, is expected to be out until early January.
Utah hasn't faced a top-10 opponent while among the top 15 since the 1998 national championship game against Kentucky. Dating to that loss, the Utes are 2-16 against the top 10.
Both teams are 1-1 against the Top 25 this season.
The Jayhawks won the only previous meeting in 1995, which was also played in Kansas City, Missouri.