I’m not a big fan of the Kansas Jayhawks. Their coach, Bill Self, seems like a decent enough chap, but his teams are known primarily for losing big time NCAA tournament games. In their past twelve tournament appearances under Self, the heavily favored Jayhawks have lost to the likes of mid-major schools such as Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa, VCU, and Wichita State. I know they’ve also won their share of big games, but even when Kansas made the finals in 2012, they were kind enough to hand Anthony Davis and company the championship trophy. Generally speaking, Jayhawk players spend their entire college careers trapped in desolate wheat fields through the dead of winter with only nightmarish upset memories haunting them upon graduation. Given all that, I should feel sorry for the Kansas Jayhawks—and yet I can’t stand them. I want them to lose every game.
OK I’ll admit–maybe it’s just competitive jealousy on my part–but I don’t like Kansas Basketball for all the following reasons. 1) Although lagging behind in National Championships (8 to 3), Kansas remains hot on the heels of Kentucky for total NCAA victories (2,222 to 2,204). I certainly don’t want them to catch up. 2) They compete annually with UK for some of the game’s biggest recruits. Andrew Wiggins, Xavier Henry, and Cheick Diallo at one time inexplicably all chose Kansas over Kentucky. 3) Their program tradition and coaching pedigree is as good as you’ll find anywhere. James Naismith, Phog Allen, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, and Larry Brown all have ties to the Jayhawk program. 4) Rupp Arena may occasionally rock, but historic Allen Fieldhouse remains arguably the best venue in all of college basketball. “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk” and “Beware of the Phog” are iconic chants that resonate resoundingly from the unmatched hallowed halls. 5) If that weren’t enough reason to dislike Kansas, I’ll never forget the time in 1989 when the Jayhawks ran up the score in a 55-point whooping of our beloved Pitino’s Bombinos. 6) And finally, adding insult to injury, remember that KU also edged out UK last year in overtime.
Over 24,000 wild “Cat” fans appeared in force on Saturday evening, together with a national television audience, the ESPN GameDay crew, and a plethora of NBA scouts to watch Kansas dismantle Kentucky 79-73. Rupp Arena can sometimes be as quiet as a Methodist church service, but once a year, it rises dramatically from the grave, taking a life of its own as it swallows the visiting team in tidal wave of Guinness Book of World Record crowd noise. This was the case on Saturday but Kansas refused to buckle.
Behind Michael Buffer’s “Let’s Get Ready to Round-Baaaall” introductions, Malik Monk’s acrobatic baskets, and Derek Willis’ three-point shooting, Kentucky came out of the gate quickly, pulling out to a 12-point first-half lead before Kansas chipped away to close within 32-27 at halftime. The second half was all Jayhawks, though, as Kansas went on an 11-0 run and Kentucky reverted back to the undisciplined, defenseless team Coach Cal has been railing about.
There’s no cheering on press row, but at the point in the game when Josh Jackson missed two chicken biscuit free-throws and Isaiah Briscoe hit a three, I literally rocketed out of my seat. It was goose bump city in Rupp, a shot of unexpected adrenaline and emotion coursing through your Big Blue veins—like whenever Randall Cobb scores a touchdown or Marlana VanHoose sings the anthem. Unfortunately, the elation was short-lived. Frank Mason’s 21 points and Josh Jackson’s 20 points and 10 rebounds steadied the Jayhawks and sealed UK’s fate.
This was a big loss for several reasons. Kentucky’s regular season slog through the SEC provides few remaining opportunities to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee. A victory over the Jayhawks would have gone a long way towards contending again for that coveted #1 seed and a possible first round date in Indianapolis. A win over a top ranked team would have also provided for a shot of much needed confidence to a young team still looking to hit its championship stride down the stretch. Most importantly, it would have been just a great feeling to be able to kick the living daylights out of your perennial nemesis. For one horrific evening at least, I’m absolutely devastated. For a die-hard Wildcat fan, a loss to the Jayhawks sends me in search of the nearest serotonin cocktail.
Maybe we’ll see KU again in the tournament. But maybe we won’t. Kansas being Kansas means they’ll probably choke beforehand. As for UK, just hang on. Time to reset. Coach Cal likened coaching this team to landing an airplane before you run out of runway. “We got out-toughed, and we didn’t guard the way we need to guard, which is all curable,” he said. It’s the end of January. The end of the runway is in sight. It’s time to start landing the plane.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.