Kansas against a Pac-12 team at the Sprint Center … what could possibly go wrong?
Echoing the last Jayhawks game that counted in this building, No. 2 KU on Wednesday was muzzled 74-65 by unranked and unheralded Washington.
It was the sort of disturbing loss that essentially offsets the impressive win over Kentucky in the Champions Classic, even if it was perhaps an inevitable lapse this time of year.
But on the flip side, as KU coach Bill Self likes to say, the nature of the defeat definitely begs questions about just how much fans can believe in this team right now.
Punctuating a night of futility in which the Huskies seemed to come up with a blueprint for beating KU, many Kansas fans streamed to the exits with 2 minutes left.
And the only thing Self questioned about it was what took them so long.
“If I’d have paid to see that, I probably would have wanted something to drink over in Power & Light — probably long before 2 minutes was left,” Self said.
Unlike Kansas’ last official game here, the 74-65 loss to Oregon in March with a Final Four berth in the balance, this one needn’t leave KU fans drowning their sorrows.
At least not yet.
But this seemed no fluke:
In beating a top-two team on the road for the first time in school history, Washington was in charge virtually all game: The Huskies led for more than 28 minutes, including the entire second half.
When KU rallied to cut an eight-point lead to 53-52 with 9 minutes 45 seconds left, Washington immediately went on a 7-0 run to lead by double-digits for the final 6:55 before a Malik Newman three-pointer with 29 seconds left.
All in all, it was enough for a serious pause and reality check for a previously unbeaten KU team that was averaging 91.9 points a game, feasting on 43.5 percent three-point shooting and largely dependent on Devonte’ Graham — who had scored 35 points in each of Kansas’ last two games but had just three against Washington.
And to hear first-year Washington coach Mike Hopkins tell it, the game plan was pretty simple:
If somebody else beats us, that’s great, but no way Graham was going to have the chance to do it.
So while taking advantage of a flat KU team that flailed on defense — “horrendous,” Self called that part of the game — the Huskies on the other end were happy to let Lagerald Vick try as many layups as he wanted while they shadowed Graham and basically defended four-on-three on the perimeter.
Vick took 23 shots, and made 12 of them, on his way to a career-high 28 points that Self called “fake” because of the way Washington defended as it held Kansas to five of 20 threes.
Meanwhile, with Graham pestered off his game (one of eight from the field, one of five from three-point range), with Svi Mykhailiuk hitting just two of eight threes, and Newman still struggling to get in the flow, the perimeter defensive gambit paid dividends for Washington (7-2) — which had no impressive wins before Wednesday and lost by 24 points to Virginia Tech on a neutral court a few weeks ago.
Consider that Washington outhustled Kansas and played bigger, quicker and tougher, as Self put it, and KU got exactly what it deserved.
It also demonstrated how thin its margin for error really could be with a short bench Self can only hope will be fortified in the weeks to come (see: the lingering Billy Preston issue), the absence of a dominant force inside and so much reliance on the three.
Inducted in September into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Self obviously is an accomplished coach who will adapt and wring the most he can out of this game.
And while he’s not accepting that this was in any way a good thing, it certainly will make for a handy Exhibit A for his team about how it has to play to distinguish itself.
“When we’re energized and moving the ball, and everybody’s playing with energy, I think we’re really a nice team,” he said. “But when we’re not, we get average real fast because we’re not extremely quick and we’re not very big. Those are facts. That was evident tonight.”
He added, “If we don’t play with a chip on our shoulder and play scrappier than our opponents, we’re going to have more nights like this.”
Certainly, even if Washington’s zone is uncommon, more nights of seeing this template are ahead for KU —S and some more early departures for fans if Self and his team can’t navigate the strategy better.