Bill Self sat quietly on the Kansas bench, his chin buried into his right palm. For a moment, he forced a wry smile, a face that suggested something between bewilderment and resignation. It was late on Tuesday night here at Bankers Life Arena. The dismantlement of Kansas was already in its final stages.
Across the floor, Kentucky coach John Calipari was set for another line change. Five Wildcats stood at the scorer’s table, including two 7-footers. Calipari clapped his hands.
As the clock ticked down on No. 5 Kansas’ 72-40 loss to No. 1 Kentucky in the Champions Classic, it was clear which coach had arrived with a greater arsenal of weapons.
“Reinforcements,” Calipari would say.
The Kentucky onslaught had come in suffocating waves, 7-footer after 7-footer, a swarm of bodies that left the Jayhawks’ offense utterly useless. The Jayhawks, who shot just 19.6 percent, suffered an early-season beatdown on the national stage. The Jayhawks had finished just 11 of 56 from the field, the worst shooting night of the Self era. Kentucky’s big men had blocked 11 shots.
“The height really bothered us,” freshman guard Devonte’ Graham would say.
“We’re just not very good,” Self would say.
For Self, the final surrender came when he sent walk-on Evan Manning into the game with less than five minutes left. It would become the biggest loss in Self’s 12 seasons at Kansas — the previous had come in a 25-point shellacking at Texas in 2006 — but the Jayhawks’ had coach had no interest in dabbing at the wound.
I knew we hadn’t practiced well,” Self said, “and hadn’t done some things well. But I didn’t think it would be like that.
In less than five months, the Final Four will be back here in Indianapolis. That’s close to 130 days. Earlier this month, SMU coach Larry Brown predicted Kentucky could run the table and win the NCAA Title. On Tuesday, that prediction didn’t seem so bold. And perhaps Kansas will have a chance to be there, too. But on Tuesday, it was clear that the Jayhawks have many steps to take by then.
“Who are our best players?” Self said. “I don't think anybody knows.”
Junior forward Perry Ellis was limited to just four points on one-of-six shooting; freshman forward Cliff Alexander finished with just eight points in on two-of-seven from the floor. The Jayhawks shot three of 23 in the second half.
This, in one word, was a mismatch.
“We kind of bumrushed them a little bit,” Calipari said. “And every time they looked, there were more tanks coming over the hill.”
Kansas had trailed Kentucky 38-28 after an opening half that often felt like a collection of really tall older brothers blocking shots into the first rows here at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Wildcats were the presumptive preseason No. 1, the program expected to cut down the nets at the Final Four here in Indianapolis in early April. Calipari has collected 7-foot centers like souvenirs, and the Wildcats arrived with four players 6 feet 11 or taller on their roster.
When Self countered with 6-foot-8 forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor in the middle, the size difference was stark. Kentucky’s starting small forward (Alex Poythress) was as big as anybody Kansas had the on floor.
For stretches of the first half, Kansas’ offense was relegated to sophomore Frank Mason driving wildly into the Kentucky trees. In most every case, the trees won. Kentucky’s length and height was everywhere, putting an impenetrable seal on the Jayhawks’ basket. During the opening 20 minutes, the Jayhawks managed just eight total field goals; the Wildcats finished the first half with eight blocks.
When it was over, Self was asked about the Jayhawks’ “game plan”. For 40 minutes, Kansas had kept driving, kept throwing the ball inside, kept attacking Kentucky’s length. Did the Jayhawks have the right pieces — the right philosophy — to beat a team like Kentucky?
“This game plan crap that everybody talks about; this isn’t football,” Self said. “We play to our strengths, and you don’t just change offenses because the other team is tall. Our whole deal early on was drive to pass. And we didn’t; we drove to shoot.”
For more than 10 minutes, Self stayed calm. He employed gallows humor. He said it was early. But yes, he conceded that his team had been embarrassed.
“You don’t come to Kansas to have games like that,” Kansas sophomore center Landen Lucas said. “You come to win. And we’re at least expected to make it a competitive game no matter who you’re playing.”
Hours earlier, there had been one specific possession, early in the first half. The Wildcats led just 12-9, and the Kansas defense covered Kentucky for the full 35 seconds of the shot clock, forcing a bad shot. But out of nowhere flew Kentucky’s Marcus Lee, a reserve who measures 6 feet 9. On Kentucky’s roster, Lee is perhaps Kentucky’s fourth best big man. That might be generous. But here was Lee, snagging the rebound, dumping a pass to Kentucky guard Devin Booker. In seconds, the Wildcats had a bucket that kick-started a 14-1 run.
By late in the half, Kentucky had extended its lead to 35-17. The Jayhawks held their own on the glass — they were outrebounded just 47-42 — and they managed to keep the Wildcats to 43 percent shooting. But the Jayhawks had no offensive answer.
In the moments after the game, Self entered the postgame press conference and saw a bottle of water sitting on a table.
“I was hoping that was vodka,” Self said, taking a swig.
A room of reporters laughed. For the moment, Self believes it’s too early to get discouraged. He talked about the Chiefs’ slow start. Where are they now? He mentioned others teams who have looked overwhelmed in a season’s opening weeks. His message: It’s early.
“It’s too early in the season to be discouraged,” Self said. “And the players — it’s OK to hurt. They’re embarrassed, we all are.”