INDIANAPOLIS -- The Big Blue Beatdown was finally over. Kentucky had pounded Kansas by 32 -- count 'em -- 32 points, and Jayhawks coach Bill Self walked into the interview room and grabbed a bottle of water.
“I thought this was vodka,” he said. When you’ve just lost 72-40, what is left but a sense of humor? Besides, a lot of coaches this season will feel that way a half-hour after playing Kentucky.
The question on the floor is, will all of them?
As of Tuesday night, the college basketball season was five days old. Since when do we start sizing up a team’s chances to go unbeaten on November 18? Never. But with Kentucky, we might not be able to stop ourselves.“We’re not that good,” John Calipari said.
Yeah, good luck finding buyers for that one, after what the Wildcats just did to Kansas.
“I would say he’s got to say that,” Self said. That was just after the Kansas coach mentioned, “Somebody’s going to have to play a great game to beat them.”
This doubleheader is designed to get the nation in the basketball mood by providing glimpses of how some of the bluebloods are shaping up.
It was shown Tuesday, for example, why Duke's Jahlil Okafor -- who has missed only five of his first 30 college shots, put on a clinic with his inside moves and scored 17 points against a physical Michigan State team -- comes with such an opportunity to climb the list of post players for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.
“He has a chance to be the best one,” Krzyzewski said. By the way, the Blue Devils have trailed only 13 seconds in Okafor’s first three games.
“You’ve just got to love a guy that that wants to be what he is,” Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said. “He’s a center that wants to be a center. Most centers used to want to be power forwards, and now they want to be two guards.”
It was shown how Michigan State needs work on its defense, and Kansas needs even more on its offense. “They’re embarrassed. Obviously we’re all embarrassed,” Self said of his battered Jayhawks. “But it’s too early in the season to be discouraged.”
But most of all, it was fair warning to the rest of college basketball that its worst fears about Kentucky might be true.
Yes, with enough McDonald’s All-Americans to fill a mini-bus, the Wildcats can relentlessly go at opponents like waves upon a beach. “We kind of bum-rushed them a little bit,” Calipari said of Kansas. “Every time they looked, there were more tanks coming over the hill. It wasn’t substitutes, it was reinforcements. Here they come. It kind of gets to you a little bit.
“We’ve got 10 starters on this team. That’s what we have.”
And yes, they are long and tall and quick on defense, so it would be easier to run a fast break through barbed wire than get to the rim against Kentucky. Anyone who tries usually finds a small platoon of 6-10-or-better bodies waiting to make life miserable.
Which is why Kansas had as many of its shots blocked Tuesday (11) as it had go in. You could watch basketball games for eons and never see that.
“We had the helper helping the helper,” Calipari said.
“They can cover up for mistakes as well as anybody I’ve ever seen,” said Self, whose Jayhawks missed 25 of 33 shots before halftime and 20 of 23 after it. “No matter how bad we shot it in the first half, we proved that we could actually shoot it a hell of lot worse in the second.”
And most importantly, yes, everyone is buying into the two-platoon system. So far, anyway. No Wildcat played more than 21 minutes Tuesday night.“We couldn’t do what we’re doing -- there’s no way -- if we didn’t have solid, selfless kids,” Calipari said. “Think about it. These guys are McDonald’s All-Americans, and they’re playing half a game.
“And they’re accepting it. Unless they allow us to do this, we can’t do it.”
It was junior Willie Cauley-Stein who noted the most pertinent point. “If you’re winning, it makes it a lot better."
Calipari said he wants more motion from his offense. The one that has only five more turnovers through three games than the defense has blocked shots.
He wants to find more shots for Aaron Harrison, last spring’s 3-point drama king. “The team has to do it,” he said. “Or if they don’t do it, then I’m going to have to do it.”
He repeated that the platoon system will be tinkered with, or scrapped, pending future events.
“This will all be decided on the court. I told these guys it’s not communism. If someone deserves more time, they will play more. If someone is playing themselves out of time, I’ll deal with that. Will I ever go to playing eight guys, or seven? I hope not, because I want to be fair for all these kids. I’m not trying to do this to be a genius. I’ve never coached this way. What I’m doing, this is what’s right for these 10 players.”
Self suggested the team to beat Kentucky might be one that is patient, spreads the floor, works the clock, and shoots a percentage hot enough to make toast.
“Right now, they’re so much ahead, but [other] teams have a tendency to get better, too. There will be teams out there that can challenge them. Whether or not they can beat them, I don’t know.”
Calipari’s bottom line on Kentucky: “I’ve got a job to do and I told them that after the game. We’ve got to keep growing and getting better, and I’m not going to accept anything but that.
“We’ve got so much to figure out about this team, it’s not funny. The only good news is when we come into town, the other guy’s got to figure out two teams.”
About those two Kentucky teams. How do you stay with them? How do you rebound against them? How do you score on them? And if they don’t turn on each other, what are they going to be like in March? Tuesday told us it is not too early to ask.