LEXINGTON, Ky. -- At some point in the first 10 minutes of his team's visit to Rupp Arena on Saturday night, a thought went through Bill Self's head.
It was not an internal debate on a potential personnel decision or a piece of strategic arcana. It was not a comforting thought. It was more like: gulp.
"Oh I thought, 'This could get ugly really fast,'" the Kansas coach said. "I thought it already was ugly."
He was right. At the 10-minute mark of Saturday's first half, as Kentucky freshman Malik Monk began to cook, and backcourt mate De'Aaron Fox flew up the floor, and monster big man Bam Adebayo bullied the low block and Rupp Arena roared its way into Guinness World Records territory, the risk facing the Jayhawks was not merely that they would lose. It was that they would be embarrassed.
Which is when a funny thing happened. Kentucky just sort of ... stopped.
If the Wildcats were actually wild cats and the Jayhawks' 79-73 road victory on Saturday was a nature film, the final 10 minutes of the first half -- when Kentucky committed eight turnovers and went into the half leading just 32-27 over a Kansas team that had shot 0-of-8 from 3 -- would confound even Richard Attenborough. How often do cheetahs, having successfully stalked and wounded their prey, casually refuse to finish it off?
The answer: About as often as John Calipari-coached Kentucky teams fail to close out marquee wins in their own building. It simply doesn't happen.
Which makes Saturday an anomaly. And a massive missed opportunity, to boot, in terms of Kentucky's path to a potential national championship.
"That's the other thing that's tough for these kids; you got to come every game," Calipari said. "And then when you do come, you got to finish for 40 minutes, because the other team's not going away. You got to finish it out. You get a team down 12, 13, 14, you better get it to 20. And then you better go into half and say the first five minutes, we're going to win this game. We're not there yet.
"We get it to 12, 13, and the next time I look around, it's four. Then I look up, we're down four. What the heck just happened?"
What happened was in large part due to the Jayhawks' persistence and savvy. After the ugly start, Self began to change his defense, switching to a 2-3 zone and a triangle-and-2 matchup look, with at least one defender shading toward, if not outright shadowing, Monk at all times. The Jayhawks are near-religious in their devotion to man-to-man defense -- "Hopefully we don't have to do that moving forward," Kansas guard Frank Mason said, "because we take pride in playing man on man and guarding our man" -- but the wrinkle helped stanch the transition bleeding and forced the Wildcats to stop and think.
Then, in the second half, the Jayhawks got back to shooting the ball as they normally do. Freshman Josh Jackson opened the half with back-to-back 3s (both off a handoff action with Mason, which drew both Kentucky defenders away from Jackson) and the "lid came off," as Self said. The Jayhawks shot 58.8 percent in the second half, including 5-of-11 from 3. Mason, Jackson, Svi Mykhailiuk and Devonte' Graham started attacking more; forward Landen Lucas contributed a massive stretch of defensive stops and physical finishes around the rim. By the time the half was over, Kansas had turned the ball over just four times and averaged 1.41 points per possession altogether.
“Coming into the game, we knew there was going to be a point of time where we were going to be down and trying to come back," said Jackson, who finished with 20 points in one of his best games of the season. "We knew they were going to go on a run. The thing we had to do was just keep believing in each other and never stop fighting. I think we were down 12 points at one time, but we all knew that we could get back.”
It was a poised, commanding performance in a brutal road venue. But the Jayhawks had a bit of help too, beginning with the 17 turnovers the usually hyper-efficient Wildcats committed in their 75 possessions. There were turnovers that weren't recorded on the box score as well -- rushed 3s, shaky midrange pull-ups, sloppy passes that might have otherwise netted a hockey-assist-style whip around the perimeter. Monk, in particular, grew frustrated -- after scoring 12 points in the first half, he went nearly 12 minutes without an attempt in the second half -- and tried to force his way back into the game, despite the defenders draped all over him. Adebayo's early touches, a focus for Calipari in recent days, gradually withered. And as the Jayhawks heated up, the Wildcats' defense began to crack under the pressure.
The question is: Does it matter?
On one hand, not really. Self likened Saturday night's contest to a showcase game at an AAU tournament, where the organizers set aside one game -- outside of the tournament bracket itself -- for the two best teams (or, really, the teams with the best prospects) to take center stage. Good for the fans, great for exposure and a whole lot of fun, but not strictly the point of the competition itself. Saturday's loss won't cost Kentucky the SEC title, and it won't make the Wildcats' national title hopes -- the only reasonable expectation for a team this good -- suddenly seem far-fetched. Kansas, in case it wasn't clear by now, is really, really good.
On the other hand, though, so is Kentucky. The problem is that the Wildcats, having lost to Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center in December and having fallen to UCLA on their own floor weeks before that, might get to Selection Sunday without a No. 1-seed type of résumé. There is that great neutral-court win over North Carolina, sure, but otherwise? No one in the SEC represents the kind of opportunity, home or away, of a team like Kansas. Will that be the difference between a No. 1 seed and a No. 2? A No. 3? Does that matter? How much?
We'll see. For now, Calipari will focus on getting his young team to be the proverbial nature-film cheetah: fast, sure, but lethal too.
"This team came together a little bit faster [than past teams have]," Calipari said. "Yet you find out, all the execution stuff I've been talking about, it will come back and haunt you. All of those little things that you, if you really want to be one of those teams -- and I keep saying: We're not yet."