There are beatdowns and there are BEATDOWNS. What Kentucky did to Kansas last night was a BEATDOWN, with an endless number of exclamation points after.
And I was lucky enough to watch it in person at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse.
First thing, Kentucky is really freaking good. They have length on top of length, and their only “normal” sized player is probably faster than 98% of the players who will try to check him.
Physical abilities only go so far, though. They play well together, make the extra pass, and attack every opposing shot. This undefeated talk, for once, is not nonsense. Baring significant injuries – note the plural – I have a hard time seeing anyone being able to hang with this team. You kind of have to knock down 25-to-30 3-pointers and then hope Kentucky isn’t hitting if you want to beat them.
It did not surprise me that the Banker’s Life crowd was dominated by Kentucky fans. It’s a short drive from Kentucky, there are lots of Kentucky fans who live in Indiana, and then there are the bandwagon jumpers who were wearing Duke gear ten years ago but now wear a (slightly) different shade of blue.1 It was probably 60-70% UK fans, a number made difficult to truly measure because A) three teams feature blue so three fanbases were mostly wearing blue and B) we KU fans didn’t have much to cheer about so we didn’t exactly stand out during our game. But there were solid sections of both KU and Michigan State fans with a healthy dose of KU fans sprinkled through the rest of the arena. I’d say KU had the second-most fans, MSU third, and Duke a respectable fourth.
My brother in Jayhawkdom Steve B. flew in for the game, and pulled some strings to get us solid seats. We were in the club level, straight across from the Kentucky bench. There was a family of Duke fans right behind us, who we talked into cheering for KU, and then a bunch of obnoxious Kentucky fans behind them and in front of us. Pretty early in the KU-UK game, when it was still a contest, one of the Kentucky fans leaned over to a 7-or-8 year old Duke fan and told him to pay close attention because this was the best team he would ever see. Even if it was good-natured, who does that?
Anyway, good seats, a great pre-game meal of fine Brazilian barbecue, and a gold-star opponent. It was nice of the Jayhawks to stay in the game for five minutes or so. After that, it was pretty much a disaster.
The smallest KU team in memory trying to challenge one of the tallest teams in college history seemed like a mismatch from the beginning. KU drove and tried to shoot, Kentucky blocked the shots and grabbed the rebounds. KU ran the offense, UK was always there to challenge passes and cuts. If someone got a look from deep, there was always a hand in the face on the shot. Frustration turned to embarrassment as KU scored just 12 second-half points, put up 40 for the game, and shot below 20 percent from the field. Not many silver linings in all of that.
Except, I think there were.
First off, Kentucky is going to make a lot of good teams look like high schoolers this year. Not much shame in being the first of the list.
Second, I actually liked how KU kept running their regular sets. There was a part of me that wanted Bill Self to scrap that and just start running action on the perimeter to get shooters open from behind the arc. But why do that when there are 30+ games left to play? Run your shit, even if it’s not working. No one will guard it as well as Kentucky did. You can only learn and grow from getting humbled like that. Tuesday’s experience should pay off against Michigan State, Florida, and Texas.
Third, despite the 32-point margin, Kentucky didn’t exactly play a perfect game.2 KU played solid defense and challenged shots. They held Kentucky in the low 40s for shooting percentage. They were just undone by giving up too many second-chance opportunities. And too many of those second-chance points came with guys who are 6-10+ shooting from five feet away over a bunch of small guys. KU couldn’t finish on the defensive end.
That’s not to diminish how well Kentucky did play, or how poorly KU performed. But I also don’t think you can get too hung up on the result. Unless they play again in the NCAA tournament, KU will not meet another team like Kentucky this year. Things that had no chance last night will have much better chances of success against every other team on the schedule. KU will get better. Three freshmen – Kelly Oubre, Cliff Alexander, and Svi Mykhailiuk – played the hardest. There’s a lot to learn from a game like this. Hopefully the lessons take.
I realized this watching KU’s exhibition games and regular season opener, but it’s shocking how small the Jayhawks are. Starting no one taller than 6-8 is amazing, when you consider who has manned the post positions for KU in the Bill Self era.
Joel Embiid (7’), Jeff Withey (7’), The Morrii (6-10 each), Cole Aldrich (7’), Sasha Kaun (6-11), Darnell Jackson (6-10), Darrell Arthur (6-10), and Jeff Graves (6-10).
Perhaps only in Self’s second year, when Wayne Simien (6-9) started with four perimeter players and Kaun and CJ Giles (6-11) played limited minutes off the bench, has KU been this small in recent memory.
It’s a huge change, both to the visuals of the game and to how Self runs his offense. Perry Ellis is a terrific inside scorer, but he’s always had a bigger guy next to him to draw the largest defender. He’s not a great leaper or someone who is always in perfect position like Nick Collison, so I think he’ll struggle at times this year.
I think Alexander is better suited to being a low-post, back-to-the-basket guy than Perry is. He didn’t have much to show for his efforts last night, but he was working hard and didn’t seem fazed by the pressure the UK bigs put on him. You always wonder about guys his size who were dominant in high school and how they will translate to the college level. I think Cliff is going to be just fine once he gets comfortable.
The size issue makes the development of Landen Lucas incredibly important. If he can get on the court and play solid minutes, he could be a huge asset at 6-11.
I’ll do a more detailed look ahead for the Jayhawks in another week or two, after I see them some more. As uncomfortable as it was to watch last night’s debacle, I’m not going to put too much stock into it when figuring how good KU can be this year. They have a lot of good parts and are working to find how those best fit together. Aside from a shot-blocker, I think the defense will be much better than last year’s. I have to think that the outside shooting will be better eventually. There may not be the #1 options they had last year in Andrew Wiggins and Embiid, but this looks to be a well-balanced team that can find scoring from just about everyone 1-10.
KU will play plenty of tough games this year. But none will be as tough as last night. Onward and upward.
And Rock Chalk, bitches.