Tuesday, January 21, 2014
For Kansas, it's not just about Wiggins
By Dana O'Neil
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The lure, at least in part, is still the kid. Even with Joel Embiid's emergence as the new best prospect in 20 years, the old best prospect in 20 years (not to be confused with Jabari Parker, last year’s best prospect in 20 years) is still part of the curiosity.
And then Andrew Wiggins is meh for two games, maybe a B- for the weekend. He played, in his coach’s estimation, the worst game of his baby-aged career on Saturday, and needed Bill Self to light a fire under him at halftime to chalk up a deceptive 17 points in a 78-68 win against Baylor. Deceptive because it was so quiet, 10 of the points coming at the free throw line, the other seven parsed out in the context of the game, none in really jaw-dropping fashion.
Yet it doesn’t matter, not to Kansas, not to a giddy fan base that is dreaming of an April weekend in Dallas, and it really shouldn’t matter to Wiggins.
The Jayhawks are beyond all of that now, beyond the fretting of what will happen if Wiggins has an off night, beyond falling apart if, heaven forbid, a freshman has the audacity to play like a freshman for a weekend, and well beyond being a one-man team.
Wiggins could still become the greatest prospect in 20 years, but for now, he is exactly what he should be, what every freshman used to be before they were tracked as soon as they could lace up a pair of high tops.
Perry Ellis (34) had 18 points to help Kansas to a fourth straight win over a ranked opponent.
He is part of the process.
“Because of our society, the hype, if you don’t produce you’re the most talked about person,” Self said. “If you do, it’s expected, so it’s really a no-win. There was no way he was going to live up to the hype.”
Now he doesn’t have to. As Kansas collects its fifth win a row, its fourth against ranked opponents, the story is less and less about Wiggins. The draw isn’t so much to see what the kid can do, but rather what the Jayhawks are doing.
That’s what’s supposed to happen. Teams are supposed to come together somewhere between January and March, find an identity, master the process. The ones left relying on just one player this late in the game? If you see them in March, you aren’t likely to see them for long.
“I like where we’re at,” Self said. “Considering after San Diego State, losing at home, to flip it and play like we did three days later against Oklahoma and get it going, we showed some toughness. We’ve definitely played better over the last five games than we have all season long.”
They are playing better because everyone is doing more.
Against Baylor, Wiggins had 17, Ellis had a team-high 18 and Selden put himself on "SportsCenter" with a dive over the press table into the stands for an assist to Embiid play that was so ridiculous, even his opponent didn’t care if replay showed he was out of bounds.
“That was a great play by him to even get it,” Baylor’s Brady Heslip said. “Maybe he deserves it because that was great hustle by him.”
And for the record, Wiggins is just fine, too. He is still Kansas’ leading scorer and in 18 games has failed to notch double figures just three times.
His biggest problem, if you can call it that, is he’s too nice. He’s a sweet-natured, easygoing kid, the kind who should make his parents proud.
It drives his coach bananas.
After a stagnant first half during which Wiggins was far too content shooting jumpers, Self challenged him to get aggressive.
“He told me to do what I do best which is attack the rim, get more rebounds and get more involved,” Wiggins said.
The result: eight trips to the free throw line and one 3-pointer launched, as opposed to the three in the first half.
Self also switched Wiggins on Heslip, and the freshman’s length all but stuffed the hot shooter. Heslip went 4-for-4 from the arc in the first half, and just 2-of-5 in the second.
Ideally, though, all of that would happen on its own. Self wouldn’t have to challenge him.
“He leaves me wanting more,” Self said.
There was a time when a visitor to Kansas might have felt the same.