KNOXVILLE, Tenn. —During his postgame talk with the soon-to-be former No. 1 team in the country — a discussion that lasted an exorbitant 45 minutes after Kansas' 76-68 loss to Tennessee — KU coach Bill Self made sure to give his Jayhawks a dose of reality.
"We weren't gonna run the table," Self told them.
That may have seemed obvious to Self — modern college basketball teams simply don't win all of their games in a season — but players are a different breed. They believe they can win any game, so why not win all of them? KU senior Sherron Collins thought 40-0 was possible.
"Maybe," Collins said.
In that case, Sunday's loss to the Volunteers at an energized Thompson-Boling Arena was exactly what the Jayhawks needed. Because this collection of players is not good enough to win games against talented teams in tough arenas when it plays the way it did against No. 16 Tennessee.
"Winning camouflages your weaknesses," Self said. "A loss exposes you. Now maybe we can get better because we've been exposed."
The Jayhawks, now 14-1, were exposed under the most unlikely of circumstances. Tennessee was so depleted coming into this one that it was actually in need of more Volunteers. The Vols had kicked senior forward Tyler Smith off the team Friday stemming from his arrest for misdemeanor gun and drug charges, and three other rotation players involved in the incident had been suspended indefinitely.
Tennessee trotted out six scholarship players and was forced to work in three walk-ons, who combined to play 45 minutes. At one point in the second half, with forward Wayne Chism and guard J.P. Prince saddled with four fouls, all three walk-ons were on the floor together as Tennessee built a nine-point lead.
KU tied the game 64-64 with 4 minutes, 20 seconds left, but the Jayhawks were done in by a desperation, end-of-the-shot-clock three-pointer by Tennessee walk-on Skylar McBee with 36 seconds left that gave the Vols a 74-68 lead.
"Lucky shot," Collins said, and maybe he was right.
McBee is a freshman who was offered scholarships only by Marshall, East Carolina, Santa Clara and Winthrop, and he would not have even been in the game if not for the recent Rocky Top soap opera.
Kansas defended the play well and probably deserved the stop. But that turn of events shouldn't cloud the bigger picture.
"We got what we deserve," Self said.
The numbers bear that out. Kansas did not play good defense (Tennessee shot 48 percent from the field, 50 percent from three and turned it over just eight times). Kansas did not play good offense (the Jayhawks made 35 percent of their shots, chucked up 27 threes, making only seven, and converted 14 offensive rebounds into eight second-chance points).
In short, the Jayhawks did none of the things that Bill Self teams pride themselves on doing.
"It was a total lack of us being as one today," Self said. "I thought we were guys on islands. I thought we were looking out for ourselves.
"When you become a team, you know who you are, from an identity standpoint. I bet you that Tennessee is closer to becoming a team with an identity than they were before, and I will tell you this: We are not any closer than we were yesterday."
KU certainly had no identity offensively. Playing against a team with just one player taller than 6-foot-8, the Jayhawks' post players combined to take just 12 shots and didn't shoot one field goal in the last 8 minutes.
"A lot of that is our big guys, when they do get rebounds, they're not aggressive," Self said. "How can Cole (Aldrich) get three shots in the first half with six offensive rebounds?"
Collins, who led KU with 22 points, didn't hide his dissatisfaction with KU's big men.
"I don't think they're playing to their ability," Collins said. "It's just a lack of effort probably, just not going after balls or trying as hard as they should."
Aldrich said he knows he can be more aggressive. He also said he didn't think the 2008 team would have won the national championship without losing three of five games during one tough stretch.
"We all kind of bonded and just understood that us as a team don't know everything," Aldrich said. "Coach Self really knows a lot. Just doing what he wants us to do is the right way."
Self has a vision for what this group can be in March, a vision that may be even clearer after what he witnessed Sunday.
"I think we have the capability of being a great first-shot defensive team," Self said, "I think we have the capability of creating havoc defensively, I think we have the capability of being tough because we do have some tough guys. I don't think we have the capability of being an outscore-you team. I don't think that's who we are, and that's not who I want us to be. I think, in our guys' mind, that's kind of what they think they are."