“I think we played better than them in the first half.”
That’s the first thing that Tyshawn Taylor said to the group of reporters that managed to track him down outside of the Kansas locker room 45 minutes after the game had ended.
And you know what? He was right.
A lot of Kentucky’s struggles were self-inflicted. Marquis Teague was playing out of control, Kentucky was breaking off their sets too early, Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis were taking some ill-advised shots. But some of the credit deserves to fall on the shoulders of the Jayhawks. They were the ones that made the steals when Teague threw a bad pass. They were the ones that played solid — and well-prepared — defense, helping to frustrate Kentucky’s players into playing 1-on-1 basketball. And most importantly, they were the ones that capitalized on the Wildcat mistakes, jumping out to a 10-3 lead early and extending that lead to 21-14 at the under twelve timeout.
Kentucky made a push to get the game tied at the half, but Kansas could go into the locker room feeling pretty good about the 20 minutes that they had just played. The Jayhawks had held Kentucky to 38.5% shooting from the floor and forced 12 turnovers.
The second half was a different story.
“We had a lot of turnovers,” Taylor said, “it was our mistakes, and they made us pay for it. One of the main things we wanted to focus on was taking care of the ball. There’s different reasons that we didn’t, but that’s what cost us.”
And while the loss hurt — Taylor said after the game that he felt like his team had lost the championship — its important that Kansas doesn’t ignore the positives from this game. They hung with the most talented team in the country for 20 minutes and didn’t quit after they dug themselves a 17-point second half hole. There are positives to take out of this game.
I know its weird to read, and even weirder to write, about moral victories when you’re talking about Kansas, one of the top five programs in the history of the game, but its just one of those years for Kansas. The Jayhawks were crushed by early-entry after last season, with Josh Selby following the Morris Twins out the door and into the lockout. Kansas also lost starters Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed, valuable role players that could shoot and defend. Combine that with the swing-and-misses that Self has had on the recruiting trail over the last year or two and the fact that three of the Jayhawk recruits — including Ben McLemore, the star of Self’s 2011 class — were ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
What does it all mean?
The Jayhawks have no bench. Their front court depth starts Kevin Young, a transfer from Loyola Marymount, who is actually playing behind Justin Wesley, a walk-on transfer from Lamar, where he averaged 1.2 ppg and 1.3 rpg. Connor Teahan, a former walk-on that finally earned a scholarship last year, played 23 minutes last night.
The guys that do play are all feeling their way through new and expanded roles. Taylor and Thomas Robinson are now the focal points of this offensive attack and expected to be in the running for all-league teams. Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey and Trevor Releford are all seeing their first significant minutes since they entered the program. All three are former top 50 recruits.
“This was definitely a learning experience for a young team like us,” Taylor said. “We got a lot of young guys, guys that just haven’t been in this position before, pressure situations like this. I think we can definitely watch tape and learn from this.”
“It sucks to lose like this, but its a learning experience. We just gotta build.”
Kansas still has plenty of chances to learn before they start Big 12 play. They kick off the Maui Invitational next week against Georgetown. The host Long Beach State, Ohio State and Davidson in September before heading out to LA to take on USC. There will be plenty of opportunities for this team to learn and plenty of room for them to grow.
“We’re only two games in. We just got to keep working hard and I think we’re going to be where we want to be pretty soon.”
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.