Kansas coach Bill Self talks to reporters following the Jayhawks' 75-65 loss to Kentucky on Nov. 15, 2011.
New York Five minutes into the second half of Tuesday night’s game against Kentucky in renovated Madison Square Garden, Elijah Johnson, Kansas University’s springy junior guard who revels in punishing rims, took the pass in the left corner and took off toward the hoop.
Time for him to make a poster, except that he passed it to Justin Wesley. That’s what watching teammate after teammate get shots swatted from Kentucky defenders who seemingly weren’t in the play can do to a would-be dunker’s confidence.
Shot-blockers alter shots. Shot-blockers who come from so far away so quickly and with such long reaches do more than alter shots. They alter decisions, such as Johnson’s passive one. Tyshawn Taylor repeatedly took the opposite approach, hurrying to get shots off, perhaps figuring if he didn’t hurry, a shot-blocker would swoop in to send his shot into the stands. Still, many of his shots were swatted. He was far from alone in that regard.
Kentucky center Anthony Davis blocked seven shots, and forwards Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist swatted three apiece.
“It’s nice when you can block shots,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We’re pretty long.”
That was the understatement of this young basketball season so far.
With the score tied at the half in part because Kentucky freshman point guard Marquis Teague had five turnovers, Kansas needed to play a smarter second half to hang with the Wildcats, whose players had longer arms, faster feet and softer shots. It didn’t.
Kansas never trusted that the only path to open shots starts with swift ball movement. Convinced that wasn’t going to change, KU coach Bill Self had his players spread it out and drive, and Taylor did that leading with his tough competitive streak on his way to 22 points, 15 coming from the line.
It was more than just the shot-blocking that led to KU’s rattled play.
“When you look at our team — and you can say the same thing about Kentucky, but those guys have been exposed to things a lot of guys haven’t been exposed to, they’re beyond their years — other than Tyshawn, there’s no other kid on our team that’s played in a big-boy game like that, where they had to deliver,” Self said. “They’ve been reserves that have had to come in and played three, four minutes, and if they play well maybe they’ll stay in, maybe they won’t. I thought it was a different pressure tonight.”
And Kentucky’s shot-blockers turned up the heat on the jittery Jayhawks.
“I think their length bothered us, which sped us up,” Self said. “They are long. I mean, I don’t know if there has been a team around any longer than those cats.”
All that hurrying to avoid all that length played a big part in Kansas shooting an atypical 33.9 percent from the field. Taylor, the team’s best player in this game, made just three of 13 from the field, Thomas Robinson just five of 12.
If it advances to the title game of next week’s Maui Classic, Kansas could face Duke, which defeated Michigan State in the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader. As always, Duke’s loaded and efficient, but the Blue Devils didn’t look as intimidating as Kentucky.