LEXINGTON, Ky. — Bill Self has an ass problem.
“We’re light in the butt,” he said, “to put it mildly.”
John Calipari? He’s got an abundance of buttocks.
Self volunteered that unexpected posterior status report Saturday night in Rupp Arena, after his Kansas Jayhawks were beaten by Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats 71-63. Big butts made a difference in this game, and could make a difference in how far each program can go in March.
The Jayhawks, without injured 270-pound center Udoke Azubuike and currently ineligible 245-pounder Silvio De Sousa, have run into a real problem. They have 235-pound Dedric Lawson on the inside, and that’s basically it in terms of serviceable big men who can bang for position and rebounds and contested baskets. Azubuike isn’t coming back and De Sousa’s reinstatement seems improbable, which means the limitations placed upon college basketball’s foremost inside-out tactician are serious.
Could Kansas’ admirable but wildly over-valued run of 14 straight Big 12 championships be in jeopardy? You bet your butt it could. More importantly, the team’s NCAA tournament prospects look daunting as well. The Jayhawks are anatomically disadvantaged.
Kentucky, on the other hand, has the length and strength, the athleticism — and, yes, the junk in the trunk — to make a big run. Here come the Wildcats.
Oh, sure, they looked terrible early — blown off the court in the opener by Duke, upset on a neutral court by Seton Hall, a loser at Alabama in their first Southeastern Conference game. Plus a succession of empty-calorie victories throughout November and the first half of December.
But this is the typical arc of a Calipari team at Kentucky — dysfunction followed by steady evolution into something formidable. The only Calipari team in the last seven seasons to avoid any semblance of that cycle was the 2014-15 team, which was undefeated until the Final Four.
This group, which once looked so lost, increasingly looks found. And that starts with the power in the paint.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” Lawson said. “They’ve come a long way from early in the year.”
The guard play certainly has improved as the season has progressed. But so has the interior, which was going to be this team’s strength from the minute P.J. Washington said no to the NBA draft and Reid Travis transferred in from Stanford.
Those two hammered Kansas inside, with Travis carrying the load early (18 points, 12 rebounds) and Washington doing more as the game went along (20 points, 13 rebounds). Then Calipari brought 6-foot-11 Nick Richards (five blocks in just nine minutes) off the bench, and got a couple offensive rebounds from 6-10 E.J. Montgomery.
“Obviously, their bigs played very well,” Self said. “Reid and P.J. were the dominant players, and it was two against one in there a lot.”
If you are light in the butt against these guys, you’re probably going to get your gluteus kicked. Going over the Wildcats isn’t easy. Neither is going around them. Of Kentucky’s past five opponents, only Auburn has shot better than 39 percent from the floor.
“We are getting better,” Calipari said. “We’re taking that gradual climb. … Some people have a hope, not an opinion, that we stink.”
OK, Tom Brady. Whatever shoulder chip you need.
The only person who may still think this Kentucky team stinks is the media member who asked the first question of Calipari Saturday night. Fresh off a third straight victory over a ranked team — at Auburn in a thriller, over Mississippi State in a blowout, and now Kansas — this was the opening query:
“John, what do you do about the bench and the lack of scoring?”
While it’s true that Kentucky’s bench scored a total of zero points, it didn’t really seem like a top-of-the-press-conference, hot-button issue.
Cal’s response: “Did we just win?”
They did. Again. Watch Kentucky play now and it’s easy to place the Cats in a group of maybe eight teams that could win it all.
This much seems certain: long and strong Kentucky is more likely than light-in-the-butt Kansas to be a pain in the ass come March, and potentially into April.
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