NEW YORK -- The Kansas Jayhawks knew that, no matter what happened on Tuesday night against Kentucky, they’d learn a lot more about who they are in the first week of a season that is sure to take many twists and turns.
At this point, after a 75-65 loss to the Wildcats that became so lopsided in the second half that it was hard to remember the game was tied at halftime, the Jayhawks are a team with guards who played like they weren’t ready for the spotlight of Madison Square Garden and the inaugural Champions Classic. They are a team with a big man in Thomas Robinson who has the potential to be dominant by season’s end. And they are a team without a clear focus offensively and defensively.
It is too early to make judgments, but it was clear that KU has a long way to go before it can think about competing for a national championship and playing into April. That, even with the early defections of Marcus and Markieff Morris and the academic ineligibility of three freshmen signed by KU last spring, is still the stated goal of the Jayhawks and always will be.
To get there, KU will need much more from starting guards Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford, who combined for six assists and six turnovers and shot 8-of-30 from the field.
“Other than Tyshawn, there’s no other kid on our team that’s played in a big-boy game like that where they had to deliver,” KU coach Bill Self said. “They’ve always been reserves. I thought that was a different pressure tonight. ... We got flustered.”
With the backcourt struggling, it was only a matter of time before the Wildcats, stacked with more talent than any team in the country, were going to hit their stride.
It happened immediately in the second half. UK freshman big man Anthony Davis finished an alley-oop to start a 13-2 run that demoralized Kansas and infused Kentucky with the confidence to take a 17-point lead at the 10-minute mark. That the Jayhawks became so discombobulated by a quick burst like that was alarming. Only in the final minute did they get the deficit down to single digits.
“I thought we’d win the game at halftime,” Self said. “Our players thought we’d win the game at halftime. They came out and punched us in the mouth. I called a couple of timeouts, a tie game goes to (down) nine, and playing catch-up to that team is not something you want to do.”
The last 20 minutes played out with the uber-youthful Wildcats knocking down open threes (they made six of nine), finishing dunks in transition and swaggering around the Garden with huge smiles. In short, John Calipari’s kids, who also swatted away 13 Kansas shots, stole the show.
When the game started, Kansas-Kentucky seemed it would put the finishing touch on a memorable night for college basketball. In the same building that increased the legends of countless NBA superstars, this was a stage set for the college game to take full advantage of the extended NBA lockout.
Spike Lee was in the house. The crew from ESPN’s College Gameday broadcast was here. Kansas royalty was represented, too, as Mario Chalmers’ presence sat behind the KU bench to remind Calipari of what happened three-plus years ago in San Antonio. And if that wasn’t enough, Self was sporting the same red, white and blue striped tie that he wore that night in April 2008. (It did not bring good luck).
Calipari’s Kentucky team was even more talented than the Memphis team that fell to the Jayhawks that night. In fact, the second-ranked Wildcats might be the closest thing to NBA players the Garden will see this season.
But No. 11 KU was far from overmatched early. The Jayhawks jumped out to leads of 10-3 and 21-14 as Kentucky’s young players adjusted to the big-time atmosphere and the pressure defense of a Self-coached team.
“Their best offense for a long period of time was
Kentucky eventually got going behind star sophomore forward Terrence Jones, who had nine first-half points, and the game went to the half knotted at 28. But to say this was two traditional bluebloods trading blows would be highly inaccurate. Kansas had six assists and 10 turnovers, while Kentucky had four assists and 12 turnovers in the first half.
To slow Kansas, Kentucky did what most teams will do this season: They treated Thomas Robinson like a star. Robinson saw the double teams that the Morris twins handled last season and had to play through that kind of attention for the first time.
“I didn’t think he handled it well at all,” Self said. “But it’s also his first time, where he’s the hunted instead of the hunter. He’ll get better with that, but not tonight. He tried to rely on doing things himself.”
Robinson finished with a double-double 11 points and 12 rebounds. He fouled out late in the second half with the game out of reach.
Taylor kept the night from getting out of hand by scoring a game-high 22 points, making 15 of 17 free throws – 14 of 16 in the second half once Self told all of his players to drive the ball to the basket since they weren’t generating much out of traditional half-court sets.
Taylor and Self both said they were not discouraged by what happened Tuesday at the Garden.
“It’s definitely a learning experience for a young team like us,” Taylor said. “They’re a young team, but we got a lot of young guys, too, guys that haven’t been in this position before. It ain’t like it’s over. I told my team, ‘We gotta keep our heads up.’ I feel like I just lost a championship, but it’s two games in.”
Taylor and Self did see one thing differently, though.
“We competed,” Taylor said.
“We tried hard,” Self said, “but there’s a difference between trying and competing. Competing is focus and carrying out assignments.”