As KU fans, UK fans, the entire college basketball world, and even plenty of non-college basketball fans who couldn't avoid the headlines saw the other night, Kansas got absolutely destroyed by Kentucky. It was a complete domination, the likes of which us Kansas fans are not used to. Being a fan of a traditional powerhouse, we're spoiled, and almost never have to sit through a game like Tuesday night. In fact, I can't remember a single game, at the very least in the Bill Self era, that made me feel like Tuesday night's contest did as it was happening. By the under-12 TV timeout in the first half, it was apparent that not only was Kentucky going to win-- but that the Jayhawks had an approximately zero percent chance of coming back. I was relieved by the run that KU went on right before the half, not because I thought it improved their chance to win outright, but because I thought at the time (and ended up being wrong) that maybe the final score could at least be respectable.
So while I was trying to make myself feel better about the blowout, I started cataloging losses from Self's tenure (note to self: THAT didn't work) and I came up with a subjective breakdown of feelings to be felt while watching your usually-highly-ranked, usually-favored team lose a game:
"Well, it's clear the boys just don't have it tonight, but maybe they can scrape out a win anyway." This is how most losses feel, especially in the Self era, during which blowouts have been scarce, and competitive losses the norm. Roy's teams could get blown out more often, simply because the style of play allowed for that possibility. Remember the game from 2003 when Kansas led Arizona by 20 and still ended up losing by 17? At HOME? Games like that were made possible by that run-and-gun style. Under Self, KU very rarely gets blown out, since there is much more of an emphasis on defense-- and because Self will actually call timeouts during opposing teams' runs, while Roy apparently gets to redeem his unused timeouts at the end of the game for gift certificates from Applebee's.***
***Note: may not be the actual reason he never calls timeout. I'm willing to listen to arguments.
"Holy crap, this mid-major is NOT going away....this is not good." Unfortunately, Kansas fans are very well-versed in this type of game. Bucknell, Bradley, and Northern Iowa in the NCAA tournament. Notable regular season losses include Oral Roberts in 2007, Davidson in 2012, Richmond in 2004, and there's probably a few more I'm forgetting right now. I think I've listed enough to upset all our stomachs anyway. I think I ate too much at Applebee's with Roy earlier, but if it's free, it's me, and I'll take three.
"Ugh. That is the worst that Kansas can play. That's their floor, right there. They deserved to lose that game." These games are always frustrating, since it feels like KU let someone off the hook. The opposing team didn't even necessarily play well, and they still walked away with the W, because Kansas sucked. Villanova in the Battle of Atlantis last year immediately comes to mind, as does Oklahoma St. in 2008 (that team was atrocious, and Kansas was six weeks away from winning the title), Arizona in 2006 (freshman Chalmers can't get the ball across halfcourt in Maui), and UCLA in 2007 (which unfortunately was the Elite 8, not exactly ideal timing there).
"You know what? That was the best that Team X could play. Not a whole lot to be done about that. They deserved to win that game." Sometimes a team plays all the way up to their absolute ceiling, and you just have to tip your hat, as we did to Oklahoma St. in 2010, Kansas St. in 2011, and Baylor in 2013, among others. I'd probably throw VCU in the 2011 Elite 8 in here too. That game checks the boxes of mid-major not going away, plus Kansas playing terribly....but above all else, goodness effing gracious, the Rams were on fire that day.
"Wow, Team X just gave KU a beatdown. At least it was a good team handing out the punishment, and it was on the road. Not as much shame in that." Some of the notable blowouts from the Self era come to mind here: Texas in 2006 (at 25 points, the biggest blowout of the last decade before Tuesday), Villanova in 2005, Oklahoma St. in 2004, and Michigan St. in 2009-- the regular season game at their place, not the Sweet 16 game.
And now, in my opinion, Tuesday night's game gets its own category: "KU is completely and totally over-matched, and has absolutely no chance to win this game." I know it's early, and Self's teams always take a while to gel, and one game-overreactions are usually foolish. I'd also entertain the idea that this result was the combination of a Kentucky ceiling game and a Kansas floor game. I don't think that was quite Kentucky's ceiling, it's not like they played an unbelievable game offensively, but I suppose I wouldn't laugh at that opinion.
All I know is this game did not feel like the 2011-12 Champions Classic, when a vastly deeper and more talented Kentucky team handled the Jayhawks in New York. It felt like KU at least had a chance to come back that night. This year's game was over almost immediately. Put it this way: how many players would Kentucky had to have traded to KU to make it competitive? Two minimum, as long as they were both seven-footers, but more likely three or four. Bottom line, for me, I have never felt as helpless watching a game as I did Tuesday night. If you don't mind me using a cliche', it was boys against men out there. If you do mind, then it was Eminem battle rapping Papa Doc at the end of 8 Mile. It was Luke Skywalker racing off to fight Vader on Bespin, before he completed his training with Yoda. It was you, the first time you fought Mike Tyson in 'Mike Tyson's Punch-Out' when you were a kid.
So, what does it all mean? Don't worry, I'm not even close to losing hope yet. Just because I'm creating a whole new personal category of loss for this team, doesn't mean I think this team can't still be very good. I think that game said more about Kentucky than it did about Kansas. It's OK to be scared of a potential rematch with the Wildcats. Perhaps KU's biggest weakness (playing against length) plays into UK's greatest strength (an ungodly amount of length at every position, please please please make it stop).
But beyond that, my prognosis for this year's squad is unchanged. The young guys will improve, and Self's system will be implemented more, and executed better, as the year goes on. By February and March, the Jayhawks will be gunning for an 11th straight conference title, and hopefully gearing up for a lengthy run in the tournament.
And maybe in April, we'll all end up celebrating at Applebee's.