Conner Teahan gets it. The senior guard knows that over the next two days, his Kansas Jayhawks are going to be painted as the underdog as they prepare to face big, bad Kentucky for the national title.
But here’s the thing; the two teams have met once before, Nov. 15, at Madison Square Garden. And while Kentucky came away with a 75-65 victory in that showdown, Kansas came away with something else, something particularly valuable in postseason play: a reinforced belief that their opponent Monday night is absolutely the real deal.
“They’re a great team,” Teahan said, “and if you let them get comfortable or let them get open looks or start to get their rhythm, then you’re going to be in trouble.”
When asked how big the difference was between Kentucky’s talent and the other teams they’ve played, Teahan said it was “pretty big,” and junior forward Kevin Young agreed.
“It’s a big gap because we have to watch out for all five players on the court,” Young said. “We played them earlier in the year, so we know what they’re capable of.”
They also know what they have to do to prevent another loss. Kentucky, which features at least six potential NBA players on its roster, showed its trademark unselfishness the first time around, as five players scored in double figures.
“With Kentucky, you’ve got to take away layups,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “It sounds easy to say, but transition or second shots, you got to take away lobs.”
Self went on to say that Kansas actually did a good job of defending Kentucky in the first half — the score at the break was tied at 28 — but the Wildcats pulled away.
“They just wore us out in the second half,” Self said.
Self said it will be important for Kansas to take Kentucky out of its offensive rhythm. The Jayhawks also need to eliminate turnovers; they committed 14, which compensated somewhat for Kentucky’s 19.
“We turned the ball over a lot, and it led to their points,” Teahan said. “I remember at halftime, Coach was disappointed because he felt we could have been up by about eight or so, but we gave them some easy (points), we’d turn the ball over and it led right to a dunk.”
This won’t be an easy task. Kentucky, 37-2, features at least two surefire NBA lottery picks in freshman forwards Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Davis’ long arms and shot-blocking ability have disrupted offenses all season.
But with the Jayhawks staring in the face of a team that might be one of the most talented to come along in years, Teahan is quick to remind everyone that Kansas, 32-6, has gotten this far for a reason.
“It’s a team game, it’s not about individuals, and I think we have a team that’s extremely tough, that doesn’t really back down in any situation,” Teahan said. “I think that’s something that goes in our favor.”
And to win, there’s no doubt the Jayhawks will need to maintain that fighting spirit the whole way through.
“We have to come out and play like a confident team,” Self said. “We can’t be a team that is in any way, shape or form defensive or not in attack mode. We have to go take it, because I guarantee Kentucky will play like they’re going to take it.”