Tall order: Kentucky just raised the bar for KU -- and everybody else
Bill Self can coach his way out of a mouse's hat box.
But the man can't coach height.
Eleven field-goal makes. Eleven shots blocked. Mercy.
By the time the dust (and tremors) settled Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the final tally read like this: Kentucky starters 38, Kentucky bench 34, Kansas 40. Add it all up, and the top-ranked Wildcats had handed the fifth-ranked Jayhawks a 72-40 loss -- the worst, margin-wise, of the Self Era.
It started wonky, went south quickly, and by midway through the first half an old-fashioned, behind-the-woodshed beating was well underway. KU (1-1) missed on 22 of its first 26 attempts and had as many shots blocked (eight) in the first 20 minutes as it had field goals.
Kentucky features 10 players 6-foot-6 or taller, including Big Blue's two primary ballhandlers, the Harrison twins. The guards Self trusts most right now, Wayne Selden Jr. and Frank Mason, stand 6-5 and 5-11, respectively.
So Kansas got a weird, awkward, uncomfortable dose of its own medicine at the State Farm Champions Classic -- the sort of medicine that usually had been dished out via swats from ex-Jayhawk centers Jeff Withey and Joel Embiid in recent years, the psychological terror of knowing what was waiting for you if you crashed the lane.
Kentucky coach John Calipari knows what Self's great Kansas teams have shown the world for years: It's no fun trying to shoot over a sequoia.
That KU came up short was neither a surprise nor cause for mass panic; Self's lineup is trending small (Perry Ellis, Jabari Traylor and Cliff Alexander each check in at 6-8), and Kentucky, last year's NCAA tourney runner-up, is a matchup nightmare. This also might be Cal's best team among a plethora of outstanding teams in Lexington, one so stacked with McDonald's All-Americans that he decided the best solution was to simply sub them in as entire lineups (or "platoons," as he calls them), five at a time. Andrew and Aaron Harrison don't have Andrew Wiggins' hops but offer up Wiggins-like wingspans that are a beast to shoot over, and forwards Karl-Anthony Towns (6-11) and Olathe, Kan., native Willie Cauley-Stein (7-foot) take turns blotting out the sun (five blocks combined).
The rub is that the 'Cats, and their roster with enough talent to account for two No. 1 seeds, made the Jayhawks look like a plucky 15 from the MEAC. KU didn't score in the second period until the 14:39 mark, on an Alexander free throw that cut the Big Blue lead to 44-29. With three minutes to go in the contest, Kentucky had 11 field goals for the half -- as many as the Jayhawks had the entire game.
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Any time KU would raise its head a little off the mat, Calipari would roll another platoon at the Jayhawks. Ten 'Cats played at least 17 minutes, and a dozen scored.
"It's like tanks coming over the hill," the Wildcats' coach told ESPN on the court after the game.
Uh-uh, Coach. More like Godzillas.
Heck, the best defense against Kentucky might be to sag off anyone who isn't a Harrison and hope the carom somehow lands in your mitts. Option B is to bite Cauley-Stein in the ankle as he's towering over you. Option C is to run up and down the court carrying footstools.
It got to the point where, a few minutes into the second half, with the 'Cats having pushed their cushion up to 42-28, KU's 7-foot star of last year, Embiid, tweeted what a lot of Jayhawk fans were thinking:
Yeah. What he said.
On the bright side, KU faithful, it's November. While it's fair for questions to be raised and souls to be searched, this is a marathon, and all Tuesday meant, long term, was that the Jayhawks fell down badly for a spell some 50 paces in.
The finish line, and the finished product, are a long way off. And thank Phog for that. During his postgame news conference, Self grabbed the plastic bottle of water in front of him, took a swig, looked at it quizzically and set it back down.
"I was hoping that was vodka," he deadpanned. "But no, it's just water."
That's Self: loses by 32 and still wins the postgame press conference. He still can win the Big 12, too, but the bar for snatching Planet Bracketville's big one officially has been raised. To the roof.