I don’t see much reason to do an in-depth description of exactly how this game played out. I’d imagine anyone reading this is already aware that Kentucky jumped out to an early lead, and that this game was never competitive. Kentucky destroyed Kansas in just about every way.
Before the game, it seemed like KU would need to good version of David McCormack to show out, facing a Player of the Year candidate in big man Oscar Tshiebwe. We did not get that version of McCormack, and Tshiebwe ended up with 17 points and 14 rebounds. Neither did we see Ochai Agbaji go off in attempt to give KU a shot (though this wasn’t his fault, given how little the players around him did to allow him an opportunity to get going). This was just a full-fledged beating for 40 minutes.
In the short term, as bad as this game was, it likely doesn’t mean much. This team can still continue to fight and pull off enough close, rock fight wins to stay in the race to win the Big 12. It didn’t really demonstrate anything about the team that fans weren’t already aware of. Despite Bill Self’s goal of getting faster and more athletic in the offseason, the Jayhawks are still lacking in pure physical, athletic ability. The defense is still poor, as they don’t have a high level on-ball stopper or consistent post defense. The offense is still good, but ultimately limited by the aforementioned deficit in athleticism (especially when Remy Martin, whatever the reason, can’t find much playing time).
What this game did is highlight just how much the right type of team can make Kansas look bad. Kentucky has good size and outstanding athleticism, and players like Dajuan Harris, Christian Braun, and Mitch Lightfoot aren’t going to excel against that type of competition. Fortunately for Kansas, a lot of the Big 12’s quality comes from team basketball and tough defense, rather than teams putting elite talent on the floor. A league title is still very much in play, even if KU’s place in the rankings has involved some luck in some very close games. But in terms of KU’s place among the nation’s top teams, the teams with 5 star players and NBA athleticism, the Jayhawks just aren’t going to be able to hang. Next year’s recruiting class is quite a haul, and some of these issues will likely be addressed (though losing Agbaji, potentially Braun, and even McCormack will offset that to degree). But for now, Kansas is in a frustrating place. Their immediate goals of putting together a 1 or 2 seed’s resume and competing for a Big 12 title trophy haven’t gone anywhere. But it’s become clear that there’s a ceiling on this year’s team, and this game served as an unfortunate reminder of that.
The questions, for this season, still revolve largely around Remy Martin. After playing 20+ minutes in each of the last two games, the quickest point/combo guard on the team was trusted to play just 14 against the most athletic team Kansas has faced. Martin is a contentious subject among Kansas fans, but his knee no longer looks to be holding him back much, and the idea that a minutes limit was restricting his PT in recent games goes out with the window with him sitting even more than usual, despite this being a game where his speed and explosive first step could have helped quite a bit. Martin didn’t look good defensively, and hasn’t all year. Self’s hesitation to play him may simply come down to that. That puts Self in a tough spot, because Martin’s offensive talent is sorely needed in some of these tough matchups, but the defense is rocky enough as it is. Self has shown a willingness to adapt his philosophy when necessary, but I’m not sure he’s willing to go full Creighton and just say screw the defense, let’s try to win by lighting up the scoreboard and hoping the opposition just can’t keep up.
McCormack is another key piece to the puzzle, but in 16 minutes of play, the center had three points and no rebounds, while turning it over twice. His play has generally picked up since league play started, but it’s clear that the transformation to the borderline-dominant player we saw for much of the Big12 schedule last year is not forthcoming. With Zach Clemence being hurt (and a freshman still in need of some extra weight on his frame), Lightfoot bringing little to the table outside of energy and effort, and Jalen Wilson not showing a whole lot of development, there simply isn’t another answer sitting there for Self as McCormack struggles.
Kansas’ next game is in Ames on Tuesday, meaning January basketball is over for them. If we’re going to see a transformation and widespread improvement, time is running out. But in looking at the roster, barring a player showing quick, incredible improvement, this team is who we thought they were (RIP Denny Green). The question is how far that level of good can take them.