CHICAGO (AP)—Mention the words Kentucky, Kansas and last year in the same breath, and Wildcats forward Bobby Perry is sure to grimace.
The Wildcats have bragging rights over Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and anybody else when it comes to history and tradition. When they visited Kansas last year, though, the winningest program in college history got whupped like a newcomer to Division III.
The 73-46 loss at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 7, 2006, was the worst in Tubby Smith’s 10 years at Kentucky, and it still stings a year later.
“It felt like we ran into a bomb,” Perry said flatly. “We really don’t want to remember any part of that game. It was a pretty bad beating. They played extremely well and we played extremely bad. The fact it was my birthday, it was even worse.
“I just want to forget that whole day, period.”
Sorry, no chance of that. Not when Kentucky is facing Kansas again, this time in the NCAA tournament. The eighth-seeded Wildcats (22-11) play top-seeded Kansas (31-4) in the second round of the West Regional on Sunday. Another showing like last year, and the criticism of Smith is sure to go up a notch.
“I’m sure their staff will use it as motivation,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Saturday. “But bottom line, it’s two different teams. And it was played in Allen Fieldhouse and (Randolph) Morris didn’t play. So we’re not going to put much stock in it. I don’t think either team will get much out of it, to be honest.”
Try telling that to the Kentucky guys.
While Kansas likes to claim it is the epicenter of college basketball— James Naismith, who invented the game, was a professor there, after all—the state of Kentucky would beg to differ. The Wildcats have won more games than anybody else, made more appearances in the NCAA tournament and won more titles than anybody but UCLA.
Their list of former players and coaches is a Who’s Who of college basketball: Adolph Rupp, C.M. Newton, Joe B. Hall, Pat Riley, Cliff Hagan, Dan Issel, Ralph Beard—they’re all part of Kentucky’s rich tradition.
So to be beaten as badly as the Wildcats were last year, even if it was at Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse, that’s not going to be taken lightly.
This will be the 25th meeting between Kentucky and Kansas, with the Wildcats winning 19 of them. But the Jayhawks have had the recent edge, winning the last two.
“They were really, right out of the gates, something I don’t think our players were really expecting,” Smith said. “It just hit us so hard and so quick, it took a lot of the wind out of our sails early. We didn’t quit, but we didn’t show a lot of toughness.
“They just manhandled us in every way possible.”
Kentucky missed 17 of its first 20 shots in that game, and shot just 24 percent for the game. It didn’t have an assist until the second half, and wound up with only five.
Granted, the Wildcats were without Morris, their go-to player on offense and defense. Morris sat out the first 14 games of the 2005-06 season because he’d declared for the NBA draft after the previous season.
“They have a whole different team just by having Randolph Morris back down in the paint,” said Brandon Rush, whose breakout game came against Kentucky, when he finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds.
“He takes up a lot of room and he’s a big presence on defense, too, because he blocks a lot of shots.”
The 6-foot-11 Morris was definitely the difference in Kentucky’s victory over Villanova on Friday night. He finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds, his 12th double-double of the year, and also had three blocks and a steal.
Though Villanova has sizeable big men in Will Sheridan and Curtis Sumpter, the northern ‘Cats had no answer for Morris in the post. When the did contain him, he simply kicked the ball out to his teammates.
“He is a load,” Self said. “He changes everything on how you prepare for them and how you defend them. We played (Joakim) Noah, (Al) Horford, and to me, Morris will be as difficult to guard individually as anybody we played against.”
But just as this Kentucky team is improved, the Jayhawks have gotten better, too. Much better.
Though Kansas is an inexperienced team—its top five scorers are freshmen (Darrell Arthur, Sherron Collins) and sophomores (Rush, Julian Wright, Mario Chalmers)—the Jayhawks came into the tournament as one of the hottest in the country.
The Jayhawks have won 12 straight, including a 107-67 rout of Niagara on Friday night in which all but one player—that includes the scrubs at the very end of the bench—scored. Rush, Wright, Chalmers and Arthur are all averaging 10 points or better, and Collins is close behind at 9.8.
They’re outscoring opponents by 18, and outrebounding them by 7 1/2 . They’re averaging nine steals a game and running other teams ragged with an offense so frenetic it would wear out a hyper 2-year-old.
“It’s not just one or two players,” Smith said. “That’s what makes them so difficult to guard, because they have so many different weapons, so many ways to beat you. … They’re probably improved from last year, but we’re improved as well.”