INDIANAPOLIS — To get an idea of just how bad things were for No. 5 Kansas on Tuesday night, you don’t have to look at the box score.
Ignore the fact that the Jayhawks shot 19.6% from the floor, and the 3-for-23 that they shot in the second half. Look past the 72-40 beat down that was put on them at the hands of No. 1 Kentucky. Ignore the fact that the two point guards on the Kansas roster combined to shoot 1-for-12 with zero assists or that the Jayhawks had as many shots blocked — 11 — as they did field goals made.
All you need to do is look at Bill Self’s opening statement at his postgame press conference, as he took a swig from the water bottle left at the podium for him by the Champions Classic staff.
“I was hoping that was vodka,” Self said.
It was one of those nights.
The video of the start of Bill Self’s press conference has since gone viral, and while it’s fun to laugh at and make jokes about — everyone knows bourbon is a much better way to shake off a horrid loss on national television than vodka — it’s important to note that Bill Self’s frustration with this team is rooted in the fact that they have a long, long way to go if they’re going to win their 11th straight Big 12 title.
Where do we start?
How about on the offensive end of the floor, where the numbers don’t necessarily tell you the whole story. The problem wasn’t that Kansas couldn’t hit a shot to save their life, it’s that they weren’t even getting clean looks at the rim. Outside of one gorgeous set play that got Svi Mykhailiuk a wide-open three midway through the first half, I cannot remember one instance where Kansas got a good shot in the flow of their offense.
The problem with that is that Kansas just isn’t good enough right now to be able to win games when their offense gets bogged down. Kelly Oubre has yet to find his footing at the college level,Wayne Selden’s confidence seems to be in the gutter and Cliff Alexander is still at a point where he’s all effort and athleticism with minimal skill.
For all the hype and promise that Alexander had coming into the season, what was glossed over repeatedly was the fact that Alexander’s success at the high school level was largely the result of being able to overpower defenders that weren’t as big or as strong or as powerful as him. Kentucky’s front line is. The Texas front line is. The best of the best at this level can match Alexander’s physical gifts, and they can do so while standing an inch or two taller.
Alexander is still learning how to be a scorer, not just a dunker.
The issues currently plaguing Oubre and Selden are a bit different. Oubre had some moments on the offensive end of Tuesday, starting after he played just four minutes in the opener, but he also picked up two fouls in the first 2:33 of the game and spent the majority of his time on the floor looking lost on the defensive end. Selden is a bull-in-a-china shop, a physical off-guard that can overpower defenders, but as of now, he seems to heavily favor going to his right hand and still isn’t playing with that next-level explosiveness that made him so highly-regarded.
And then there is the issue of leadership on this roster. No one stepped up to stop the bleeding. You could see it in their body language, with the exception of that little spurt at the end of the first half — after Self had already used three timeouts to try and wake his guys up — the Jayhawks folded instead of pushing back. They looked defeated 15 minutes into their first game on national television. At one point during the first half, after Kentucky had gobbled up a handful of offensive rebounds, you could hear Self scream at Alexander, “Fight!!”
Self can only do so much. Someone on Kansas has to step up and be the guy that lets his teammates know their performance was unacceptable, I just don’t know who that will be. Toughness — not just physically but mentally — is not something that is easily taught.
Regardless of why they’re struggling, the fact remains that, for all those future first rounders on the Kansas roster, not a single player on Kansas reached double figures.
“When you hang 40 points, someone’s going to have to get hot to get to 10,” Self said before offering up a quote that was as revealing as anything he has said during this young season. He was asked why this Kansas team has looked so lost on the offensive end, and, after taking a few seconds to pick out his words, said, “It’s been a struggle figuring out what we can do where our guys can retain it.”
In other words, he can’t put in too complex of an offense if his guys can’t remember the plays.
That’s a bigger issue than anything else Kansas has going on right now, and it confirms some of the things that people around the Jayhawk program were saying off the record during the preseason. There’s potential, but there will also be a fairly steep learning curve.
So yes, Kansas has a long way to go if they are going to reach their potential this year, but it’s also important to note that this was a horrid matchup for a Jayhawk team that’s still figuring itself out.
Kentucky has the size to exploit the biggest weakness in the Jayhawk attack: their front line. Jamari Traylor is tough, but just 6-foot-7. Perry Ellis is a 6-foot-8 finesse player that looked soft on Tuesday. Alexander was mostly held in check by foul trouble and Kentucky’s size. Landen Lucas and Hunter Mickelson have the size and strength to matchup with the likes of Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl Towns, but the fact of the matter is that they just aren’t good enough to play in a game at that level.
“They were terrific,” Self said. “They stay turned up for 40 minutes, and we didn’t do a thing.”
That doesn’t change the fact that Kansas has all that talent on their roster. There’s a reason they were ranked in the preseason top five, and one abysmal performance doesn’t change that fact.
Sometimes getting punched in the mouth is the wake-up call that a team needs.
“It’s too early in the season to get discouraged,” Self said.