With a rare sense of disarray swirling around the program and days after a dud loss at West Virginia, Kansas entered its game at Kentucky on Saturday ranked second in the nation, yet seeming to be reeling.
Considering the fourth-ranked Wildcats are again teeming with NBA prospects and 129-5 at Rupp Arena under coach John Calipari and that KU would be playing with just eight scholarship players in the wake of the suspension of Carlton Bragg, even Kansas fans had to be skeptical of what was going to happen here.
All the more so when the Wildcats pounced to a 12-point lead and Kansas looked flustered and exasperated with each other and the crowd of 24,418 set the world record for loudest indoor crowd roar with 126.4 decibels.
Never mind that there is something goofy and contrived and unconvincing about these measurements orchestrated by the Guinness Book of World Records:
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It was plenty loud, and Kentucky was in KU’s grill, and if you expected the Jayhawks to melt away from there, well you had plenty of company.
“Ooh, I thought this could get ugly really fast; I thought it was already ugly,” coach Bill Self said. “ … We played tight, and they had all the momentum.”
Then everything flipped in what became a momentous and reassuring 79-73 victory for the Jayhawks, the sort of win that tells you this team is rugged and resourceful and capable of about anything this season.
Many things had to happen for this to go the way it did, naturally.
And so you could look for answers in Self’s employment of a zone to shake up the defense … and freshman Josh Jackson’s coming-of-age moment in this crucible with 20 points and 10 rebounds … and steady Landen Lucas’ 13 points on six-of-six shooting … and Frank Mason scoring 13 of his 21 points in the second half.
But the root of all that can be found in one key point — Self shut out the noise for his team, literally and figuratively, in the days since he found it “fragmented” at West Virginia and all the more challenged by what euphemistically is framed as “distractions”:
Bragg being suspended for the second time this season for what Self has called only a violation of team rules unrelated to the investigation of an alleged rape in December at McCarthy Hall — which houses the KU men’s basketball team and other male students.
Five players, including Mason and Jackson, were listed in the police report as witnesses. That’s a vague distinction that could simply mean they were asked questions because they live in the dorm … but nonetheless at least tangentially associates the team with the allegation.
These are heavy matters to be reconciled, and obviously far more serious than basketball games.
So let’s not trivialize them as just potential distractions for the basketball team.
But unless and until something implicates anyone else in anything, the trick in coaching — or getting anything done, for that matter — is to find a way to concentrate on what’s in front of you.
And this has always been one of the great strengths of Self, who has been able to neutralize or minimize any number of potentially disruptive situations he’s encountered in his time at KU.
The week behind, he said late Saturday, “obviously is a punch in the gut … That’s not going to go away immediately. …
“(But) the train doesn’t stop moving. You’ve still got to do your job and perform. Nobody cares what the excuses are.”
So the players bought into that and stayed single-minded and maybe huddled up a little tighter when it got tougher on the floor at Rupp.
If there only eight of them, well, maybe that gave them more of a sense of urgency and accountability with each other.
And maybe that had something to do with the poise they demonstrated in reversing the flux capacitor, hitting 20 of 34 field goals in the second half after making just 12 of 30 in the first — and, triggered by Jackson, making four of their first five three-pointers in the second half after missing all eight they took in the first.
After they averted their first back-to-back losses in the same season since 2013, Self tried to downplay the victory.
And in some ways he’s right to do so, considering it’s not a conference game, and here comes Baylor to Allen Fieldhouse on Wednesday.
It’s always on to the next, because the train keeps moving.
But this night was fast headed toward a derailment, and the fact that they fended off all that was coming at them for a memorable win in this din reaffirms there is something special in the making here … if off-the-court matters don’t turn into more than a “distraction.”