LAWRENCE, Kan. – Bill Self didn’t like playing this game. Not now, in the belly of conference play. So there was no way he was going to declare that his Kansas team beating Kentucky in overtime Saturday night was something grand and glorious.
“It’s a good game,” he said after the 90-84 thriller was over. “But the timing doesn’t give it the same juice.”
Self can hold firm to that line, but the deafening atmosphere in Allen Fieldhouse told a different story. To the fans, there was an entire orange grove of juice attached to this game.
These are the two winningest programs in the history of the sport (the Wildcats are on top, with 2,194 victories to the Jayhawks’ 2,170). In a direct correlation, these also might be the two proudest, staunchest and most arrogant fan bases in the game. And in this era, where neutral-court, non-conference games are commonplace and where power programs rarely visit each other’s respective cathedrals, this was the chance for one fan base to declare its particular religious fervor superior.
The Kansas fans brought their zealotry A-game. They turned The Phog into a Phurnace, with piped-in sound system and human screams both turned to 11. This was an immersion in oppressive noise.
“Wildest atmosphere I’ve ever been in,” said Kentucky senior Alex Poythress.
“I didn’t think it was as good as OU,” Self said stubbornly, referring to the Jayhawks’ pulsating, triple-overtime triumph over No. 1 Oklahoma earlier in January.
OK, fine. Have it your way, Big 12 Bill. But to the 16,300 in the building and an exponentially larger number watching elsewhere, this was a prestige-measuring contest of great import.
When guard Wayne Selden hammered a driving dunk over 7-footer Skal Labissiere with 3:11 left in overtime to give Kansas the lead for good – “turned it over on someone’s head,” in the words of teammate Devonte' Graham – it sure sounded like this game mattered.
Self wanted to win badly enough that he reached into his bag of tactical tricks and pulled out a triangle-and-two defense in the second half. It was every bit as big a factor in the Jayhawks winning as Selden’s brilliant 33 points.
Savvy and speedy Kentucky point guard Tyler Ulis was spindling the Kansas defense. He tortured the Jayhawks when they switched big men onto him off ball screens; he weaved around guards Graham and Frank Mason III; he skillfully probed every opening that was presented to him. The 5-foot-9 sophomore was the driving force in the Wildcats taking a 59-53 lead with 11 ½ minutes to play and sending a ripple of tension through the old gym.
“We couldn’t keep their guards out of the paint,” Self said. “Ulis was great.”
So a committed man-to-man coach got a little funky, assigning three men to play a triangle zone and attacking Ulis and fellow guard Jamal Murray man-to-man. Someone else – basically, a Kentucky big man – was going to have to beat Kansas.
It worked splendidly. When stretch-four Derek Willis got in foul trouble and Kentucky didn’t have a big man with shooting range, the Wildcats’ offense scored just five more points over the next seven minutes.
“They were a little passive,” Mason said. “Guys didn’t really know what to do, where to attack. It worked to our advantage to leave guys open who couldn’t shoot it very well.”
Mason said it was the first time Kansas had run the triangle-and-two all season. Self disagreed, saying he’s used it “maybe a couple times.” He estimated that they’ve practiced it five to seven minutes per day.
“It basically bailed us out,” he said.
Not for the first time in a high-profile game. In the 2012 NCAA tournament elite eight, Self slapped the same combination zone on North Carolina and watched the Tar Heels grind to a halt in the second half. Carolina’s Roy Williams was so befuddled afterward that he had no idea Kansas had played triangle-and-two.
Kentucky coach John Calipari at least recognized the defense. But he was pretty much powerless to find a way to beat it until after Kansas had come back to take the lead.
“The issue becomes, guys at the top don’t want to shoot the ball,” he said, asserting that Poythress in particular was playing too far away from the basket due to a reticence to shoot.
Despite the success with the combo defense, don’t expect Self to go Dale Brown or Digger Phelps and fall in love with it. That’s not how he’s wired.
“It’s not embarrassing, I don’t want to say that by any stretch,” Self said. “But if you have to go to a gimmick or a junk defense in order to be good defensively, then you’re not going to last very long. So we’ve got to tighten some things up.”
The main thing Kansas needs to tighten up is its play on the road, where the Jayhawks have lost their last three – all by double digits. With trips remaining to Oklahoma (Feb. 13), Baylor (Feb. 23) and Texas (Feb. 29), challenges await.
But Kansas might also have seen a star re-emerge heading into this crucial month. Selden, whose 33 points surpassed his career high by eight, reminded everyone Saturday how good he can be.
In the ephemeral world of college basketball, it seems an eternity ago that Selden was the No. 12 recruit in the nation according to Rivals.com, and the freshman running mate of Andrew Wiggins. He might never have imagined having a junior year of college, but here he is.
The biggest reason he’s still a collegian has been inconsistency, and that has carried over into this season. Selden was a dominant force on the USA Basketball World University Games team in South Korea last summer and the MVP of the Maui Invitational in November, but that hasn’t translated to the mainland. In that three-game road losing streak, Selden has averaged just 9.7 points per game and attempted just 8.3 shots per game.
Of those 25 field-goal attempts, 16 were 3-pointers. On the season, 52 percent of his shots were from outside the arc.
But Selden was no perimeter percher Saturday night. He took 20 shots, and just five of them were 3s. He went to the rim with abandon and with gusto – and at a key juncture he turned one over on a 7-footer’s head.
“I thought Wayne was as smart offensively as he’s been all year,” Self said, “because he didn’t settle.”
Now Selden has to take his show on the road. And Kansas has to settle back into conference play. But even if Bill Self doesn’t want to admit it, this visit from Kentucky was a pretty fun mid-winter departure from the grind.