Ahead of the blue blood matchup between Kansas and Kentucky, the game was billed as perhaps the biggest regular season game in college basketball. The pregame festivities advertised it as such, with ESPN’s College Gameday doing its weekly show from Allen Fieldhouse in front of a rowdy crowd.
Although Kansas coach Bill Self acknowledged the game was important for the fans and his players, to him it was just another win.
“To me, it was a fun game because it was obviously great to win,” Self said. “But it wasn’t a win-at-all-costs deal. People don’t want to hear that, and you never want to lose. But I think [Kentucky Coach John Calipari] would probably feel the same way.”
Self is certainly correct in saying that it wasn’t a "win-at-all-costs deal," but he’s not going to convince me that Saturday’s win didn’t give him at least a little more satisfaction. Self and Calipari lead two of the best programs in college basketball history, but Self had lost his previous three matchups against Kentucky with Calipari at the helm.
There’s a reason Self is now 57-9 at Kansas following a loss: he absolutely despises losing. So a three-game losing streak against a fellow blue blood program led by another elite coach had to bother him a little.
However, Self was willing to acknowledge that the game was big for his team’s momentum.
“It was a game that our guys were looking forward to playing because it was almost a free game,” Self said. “It was almost like playing an exhibition game […] Since we haven’t played well as of late, this became a much bigger game from a momentum standpoint. So I do think it gives us a boost that we needed going back into conference play.”
But the Jayhawks gained more than just momentum. They discovered a new defense that they can use in spots when they are struggling to guard to perimeter, which has often been a problem in 2016.
Entering Saturday’s game, the Jayhawks were losers in three of their last five contests. In each of those three losses, they did a poor job of guarding the perimeter. On Saturday, it looked like another poor perimeter defensive effort was going to cost them.
In the first half Saturday, Kansas had no answer for Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis, who burned the Jayhawks for 14 first-half points to go along with five assists. When it wasn’t Ulis, it was Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe scoring for the Wildcats. They scored eight points each, and between the three guards, they shot 67 percent in the first half.
In the second half, the Jayhawks elected to play a "junk defense" as Self would call it, when they went with a triangle-and-two defense. It worked, as Ulis, Briscoe and Murray combined for just 19 points, and the Wildcats' shooting percentage dipped from 63 percent in the first half to 44 percent in the second half.
The triangle-and-two has always been in Self’s back pocket, but he’s yet to use it this season. In 2012, Kansas used the very same defense to its advantage against Missouri in Allen Fieldhouse, and against Purdue and North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament on its way to a berth in the National Championship.
Even if Self was fully confident in his team’s ability to run the triangle-and-two in a tight spot in the NCAA Tournament before Saturday, it has to be reassuring to see his team execute it against a quality opponent on a national stage. Now, at least the Jayhawks have a backup plan when their perimeter defense fails them.
Self can say his game didn’t carry any extra significance all he wants, but he’s going to have a hard time convincing me.