By Chris Emma-
INDIANAPOLIS (CBS) — Kansas coach Bill Self stepped up to the podium inside the Bankers Life Fieldhouse media room late Tuesday night and took a swig of his water. Then, he muttered sentiments echoed across college basketball.
“I was hoping that was vodka,” Self said after his Jayhawks’ embarrassing 72-40 loss to the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats.
A talented team with Final Four potential, Kansas was humbled by Kentucky. The Jayhawks and their core of three Wooden Award watch list members shot 19.6 percent and finished with as many field goals — 11 — as the Wildcats had blocks.
This wasn’t a Kansas problem, it’s a concern for all of college basketball, because Kentucky is just that dominant.
“No, we’re not that good,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said in his opening statement.
Self later joked to that claim, saying, “How much stuff do you actually believe that he says?”
Calipari has seen tremendous success during his first five seasons in Lexington. The Wildcats have returned to their place at the top of college basketball with a national title in 2012, Final Four appearances in three of the last four years and 152 wins against just 37 losses.
With all due respect to names like John Wall, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, this might be Calipari’s best Kentucky team.
Like a hockey coach, Calipari runs line changes, not a rotation. He subs out a starting five of McDonald’s All-Americans with a group that includes four more McDonald’s All-Americans. The idea is to make an opponent essentially prepare for two different teams.
And you wonder why even Kansas seemed so overmatched.
“It gives us the ability to go balls to the … ball … hard to wall … it allows us to go real hard every time,” said freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns, embarrassed my his misspeak.
Hand on his head, Calipari chimed back with, “Did he just say that?”
But it was all in good fun, like a 40-minute clinic from one blue blood to another.
Should they meet again in March, perhaps back in Indianapolis for the Final Four, Kansas and Kentucky figure to have a more tightly contested tilt. But Tuesday proved that the Wildcats are already grown up.
One year ago, heralded Big Blue Nation printed T-shirts predicting an unbeaten season, only to see their Wildcats lose their third game. Part of the challenge for Calipari — as often the case when bringing in elite talent — has been managing egos. Kentucky’s loaded 2012-’13 team was exiled to the NIT, losing to vastly inferior Robert Morris. There’s only one basketball for a bunch of superstars.
These Wildcats have the maturity to manage an ‘A’ team and ‘B’ team rotation, with team before self-interest.
“I’m blessed to have a group of guys like this,” Calipari said. “They’re talented, yet they’re selfless.”
The stat sheet from Tuesday spoke to how deep Kentucky is. No Wildcat saw more than 21 minutes, no rotation player had fewer than 17. The team’s leading scorer, Dakari Johnson, had just 11 points in 20 minutes.
Bench players are supposed to be struggling recruits failing to meet expectations, key role players with one supreme skill or walk-ons who overachieve. Calipari’s bench consists of first-round draft picks.
When Calipari claims Kentucky isn’t that good, he’s lying. In fact, this may be his best team yet.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.