They had everything. They had ESPN Game Day and the “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble” Guy. They had a Hollywood actor, who’s adopted Kentucky as his home state and the Wildcats, as his favorite team. And Steve Zahn led the cheer that set a new world record – because they had the Guiness people in the house, too.
They had everything they needed to go out and win the biggest game of the night in college basketball.
What they didn’t have was toughness. Or a half-court offense they could execute in the clutch. That’s why the second-winningest program in the history of college basketball took one step closer to the top team Saturday night in Rupp Arena.
Fourth-ranked Kentucky came from ahead and lost to number two Kansas, 79-73, and likely blew its last, best chance to impress the NCAA Tournament Selections Committee which, in a few weeks, will look at the Wildcats’ worksheet. It may see a Southeastern Conference championship and maybe even an SEC Tournament title.
What it also will see are three losses in four marquee matchups – to UCLA (at home), Louisville and now Kansas. The only victory has come over North Carolina, thanks to an other-worldly performance by Malik Monk.
Beset by injuries and suspension, Kansas came to town basically with six players and fell behind by a dozen points in the first half, three different times. The Jayhawks were frigid from beyond the arc, missing all eight long ones. But at the same time, the Cats were missing the shorties, five layups sliding off the rim. And free throws weren’t happening, either (5-of-11).
Thanks to a late 10-3 KU run, Kentucky led only 32-27 at recess and when Josh Jackson opened the second half by bombing home a pair of outside shots, giving Kansas a 33-32 lead, the ‘Hawks signaled that they were, indeed, ready to rumble.
The Cats weren’t up to it.
The Kansas lead grew and so did John Calipari’s frustration as he watched his team bog down and turn it over against KU’s 2-3 zone defense, something coach Bill Self is loath to play but really had no choice.
“There’s not going to be any educational tapes on that zone tonight,” Self said, “but I do think we played it pretty well. We shaded shooters and did pretty well with it. We would not have won the game unless we switched up.”
Monk, who didn’t take his first shot until the 16:44 mark of the first half, proceeded to pour in 12 points before halftime. He scored only six in the second period, with the Jayhawks shading their defense toward him all the time.
“I told the staff after, we can’t go (seven) minutes with him not shooting the ball,” Calipari said. “We have enough stuff in our offense, whether it’s man or zone, for him to get shots off.”
Maybe so, but they weren’t showing it on this night. Kansas saw to that. In fact, an added benefit to the Jayhawks’ zone was the fact that it enabled them to force the Wildcats to throttle down their offensive attack. Sometimes it seems the Cats will score 73 by halftime. It was their 40-minute total tonight.
“It felt a little slower,” Jackson said. “They’re an outstanding transition team. That’s the strongest part of their game. Switching to zone was mainly trying to slow them down.” Jackson finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds in 39 grueling minutes.
He was outscored only by Frank Mason III, the barrel-chested senior point guard who sparked memories of former Wildcat Anthony Epps, both in the way he executed and with his grittiness, en route to 21. Mason said the zone gave the out-manned Jayhawks a chance to rest.
“It gave us a chance to catch our breath on the defensive end,” he said.
And on Kentucky’s defensive end, the Wildcats seemed non-existent at times in the second half, when Kansas shot 58.8 percent after hitting just 40 percent in the first.
“We just let them get back in the game and they got their confidence back, thinking they could play with us, “ said Derek Willis. “They ended up coming up with the right plays. That’s why they won the game.”
It was a short KU roster, but one that featured seniors and juniors, plus Jackson, the talented freshman. “I thought we showed extreme upper classman leadership tonight,” said Self. “I thought we played pretty tough.”
And for the second consecutive game, the Wildcats had to explain what went wrong. “We got out-toughed and we didn’t guard the way we need to guard,” Calipari said, “which is all curable.”
He’s the man with the cure. But he’s running out of time to make it happen.