KU not invincible; UM not going away
ST. LOUIS -- As he sat in the locker room, Sherron Collins could hear the crowd screaming.
With an athletic trainer frantically working to alleviate the cramp squeezing the player's right thigh, Collins watched the game on television. But the telecast was on a split-second delay from the live action.
"The crowd would cheer, and I would yell, 'What happened?'" Collins said.
What happened? One game into the college basketball season, and Pandora's box has been blown wide open. Turns out we don't know half of what we thought we did.
Kansas is not the dominant, etch-the-name-on-the-trophy, No. 1 team everyone thought it was, and John Calipari's Shermanesque, scorched-earth policy toward Memphis has not rendered the Tigers obsolete.
If KU's nail-biting 57-55 win over the Tigers on Tuesday guaranteed anything, it is that nothing is guaranteed this season. The Jayhawks' breathless win came on the heels of escapes by Michigan State and Kentucky, top-five brethren. There is no 2008-09 North Carolina here, no team on a strict path to certain glory. There are really good teams, but each has chinks in its armor.
None of the questions serves as a deal-breaker in the march to madness in Indy, not in November. There is more than ample time to fix the flaws.
For Kansas, that means learning the distinction between experience and maturity. When Collins left the game with cramps, the wheels didn't fly off. They used a jet pack. In 32 minutes, Collins committed just two of Kansas' 21 turnovers. His young replacements didn't find things so easy; Tyshawn Taylor ditched the ball seven times, Xavier Henry four.
"We played stupid," Collins said succinctly. "We didn't take care of the basketball, we forgot to do things, took bad shots. We have to be more focused."
This game was billed as a rematch of the 2008 national championship game, and the finish was eerily similar, if in reverse.
This time, Kansas, in the form of Collins, missed the critical free throw, and this time, Memphis, in the shape of Elliot Williams, had the chance at the 3 a la Mario Chalmers.
But unlike Chalmers' buzzer-beater, Williams' shot caught the back of the rim, leaving Memphis again on the losing end.
"Man, I thought it was in," said Williams, the Duke transfer who clearly is the most sound player in a Memphis uniform. "I thought it was good."
Aside from the miss, the other critical difference between 2008 and the 2009 remix: No one was calling up for the game tape to make this one an instant classic.
Memphis shot 6-of-25 (24 percent) from behind the arc, actually upping its percentage in the frenetic final minute when it made a whopping two 3s. The Tigers shot 34 percent overall from the floor and yet were in the game from start to finish.
Why? Because Kansas went mano-a-mano in offensive futility.
The Jayhawks scored every time they went over the top to Cole Aldrich (he had 18 points) but often settled for bad jumpers or careless drives to the basket.
"Is there one thing wrong with our offense?" KU coach Bill Self said, responding to a question about what one thing he'd fix. "Did you just watch the same crap I watched out there on offense?"
Of course, one man's trash is another man's treasure. When Self and his players gather to watch game tape Wednesday, they'll avert their eyes. Meanwhile, in Memphis, Josh Pastner will turn this into part of his ever-growing arsenal of motivational mayhem.
When this game was originally pitched and arranged, it was meant to be a 1 versus 2 rematch of the ages, with a loaded Kansas team and a loaded Memphis team going head to head.
And then Calipari bolted to Kentucky, taking players, secretaries, potted plants and the hopes for the 2009-10 season with him. In his wake stood Pastner, a 32-year-old, caffeine-eschewing, sleep-avoiding, curse-averse, first-time coach who ended Tuesday night's news conference by remarking how cool it was to be holding a news conference.
He also didn't even have enough players to drum up a good practice.
Hardly anyone picked the Tigers to win Conference USA, and few other than the players' mammas, papas and most loyal fans thought they stood a chance against Kansas.
"We're always the underdogs; we're Memphis," Doneal Mack said. "We heard what people were saying: 'Kansas is the No. 1 team in the country; Memphis has no shot.' All we did was just laugh about it last night."
Fittingly, a marathon day of hoops ended with seven guys in blue uniforms pulling marathon duty. When Pastner sent D.J. Stephens to the scorers' table with 16.7 seconds left, it was the first time in the game he went outside his seven-man rotation. Williams played 39 minutes, Willie Kemp 35 and Roburt Sallie 33, all against a Kansas team that is as deep as it is talented.
And yet the Jayhawks managed but one double-digit lead, a 10-point edge with 13:54 to play.
When it came, Pastner did exactly what he had planned to do -- he called an immediate timeout. His team responded by shaving the lead to a manageable five.
"If you had told me at halftime, when we're 2-of-14 from 3, we have seven turnovers and we're down six to the No. 1 team in the country that we'd have a chance to win it?" Pastner said. "I would have said no way. But that just goes to show you what effort does."
How far gumption and moxie can carry this Memphis team remains to be seen. It is one thing to play with a possessed fire against Kansas; it is another altogether to give the same effort when the opponents run from Tennessee Tech to Central Arkansas to Oakland and Montana State.
But the Tigers, who rode the "us against them" wagon under Calipari even when the odds weren't stacked against them, seem to be enjoying a more legit underdog role.
"I know I like it," Mack said. "I like it when no one says we have a chance or that this is the year to get Memphis. Go ahead and try."
But be careful -- because nothing is certain this season.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.