College Basketball Nation: Andrew Wiggins

Through five years of basketball under Johnny Dawkins, Stanford went unnoticed on the sport’s biggest stage, failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament after a Sweet 16 appearance in the season before the coach’s arrival.

You could argue it’s been more of the same for Stanford through the first weekend of this tournament, despite upset wins as a No. 10 seed over No. 7 seed New Mexico and No. 2 seed Kansas.

[+] EnlargeChasson Randle
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesGuard Chasson Randle, who has averaged 18.7 points per game this season, and the No. 10 seed Cardinal take on No. 11 seed Dayton on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn.
Dramatic finishes at other sites overshadowed the round-of-64 victory. And headlines from Sunday focused more on the circumstances of the second-seeded Jayhawks’ early departure than on what the Cardinal did to force it.

Stanford held star KU freshman Andrew Wiggins to four points on 1-of-6 shooting.

Give Stanford some credit here, primarily senior forward Josh Huestis, a three-time member of the Pac-12 all-defensive team who handled Wiggins for most of the game.

“I challenged him,” Dawkins said of Huestis, “and I thought he really responded. He did a great job defending.”

Stanford, in its first tournament appearance since 2008, remains content to fly under the radar as it prepares for a South Regional semifinal meeting Thursday against No. 11 seed Dayton. The Flyers have grabbed attention already with wins over sixth-seeded Ohio State and No. 3 seed Syracuse. Florida, the top seed overall in the tourney, and UCLA fill out the field in Memphis, Tenn.

Stanford again might go overlooked -- unless, of course, it wins two more games and advances to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.

Don’t count out the Cardinal. Their steady style of play figures to create problems, starting with a frontcourt of 6-foot-7 Huestis, 6-10 senior forward Dwight Powell and 6-11 junior center Stefan Nastic.

Stanford is long and versatile. It beat the Jayhawks without making a 3-point field goal (0-of-9).

Floor general Chasson Randle, who scored a team-high 36 total points in the second- and third-round games, adds an element of creativity. And 6-6 wing Anthony Brown provides another athletic option. He hit five free throws in the final 44 seconds against Kansas.

Powell and Huestis rank atop Stanford’s career chart in games played. Experience, although not in the NCAA tournament -- Stanford won the National Invitation Tournament in 2012 -- has helped carry the Cardinal.

“We’re still in the race,” Powell said, “We’re still playing in March, and it feels great.”

Stanford entered the tournament on something of a roller coaster. It lost 84-59 to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal round after three straight wins that had followed three straight losses dating to Feb. 26.

“Every season is like a lifetime,” Powell said. “Obviously, you will have your ups and downs. But from day one, before we even started preseason, we always had a goal to make the tournament and make a run. And we never lost sight of that and lost hope.”

Stanford did lose firepower. Forward Andy Brown, who started 20 games last season as a freshman, has missed the entire season with a knee injury; guard Christian Sanders has sat out with a hip injury.

Additionally, guard Aaron Bright, a 22-game starter in 2012-13, missed all but the first seven games, and forward Rosco Allen went down early in the season.

As a result, the starters accounted for more than 85 percent of Stanford’s scoring through the regular season. Against New Mexico and Kansas, they scored 107 of 118 points.

Count Kansas coach Bill Self among the admirers of Dawkins and the job he has done to rebuild Stanford over six years.

“He epitomizes class,” Self said before Kansas faced Stanford. “He conducts himself in that way, and he always has.

“He was a great hire that Stanford made, and he's going to continue to do well. And everybody in our business that knows Johnny is happy for him.”

Also before that game, Wiggins and Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. unintentionally provided extra motivation for Stanford as reporters asked them a series of questions about Randle at the practice-day news conference.

The KU freshmen had no answer, other than a few uncomfortable laughs. Clearly, they weren’t familiar with the name of the Cardinal’s top playmaker -- understandable because the Jayhawks had yet to receive scouting reports from their coaches, but apropos, nonetheless, considering the Cardinal’s somewhat unnoticed run to the Sweet 16.

Randle said after the landmark victory, in which he scored 13 points with six steals in 40 minutes, that he watched footage of the news conference.

“I took it as a challenge,” Randle said. “So did my teammates. It wasn’t just a stab at me. It was a stab at our team.”

Noticed or not, the Cardinal are marching forward.

Keys to victory: Stanford 60, Kansas 57

March, 23, 2014
Another basketball power with a star freshman was upset, with Kansas falling to Stanford in the Round of 32.

This was one of those games in which the pictures tell the story.
Wiggins couldn't close
Andrew Wiggins was basically a non factor in this game for Kansas, making only 1 of 6 shots from the field. He had averaged 28 points on 51 percent shooting in his previous four games.

Wiggins averaged 10 paint points in the six games in which Joel Embiid didn't play prior to Sunday, but did not have any points in the paint against Stanford.

Andrew Wiggins didn't get many chances to score on Sunday.

Andrew Wiggins' point total dropped in each game after his 41-point game agianst West Virginia.

The zone worked
Kansas shot 28 percent (8 for 29) when Stanford played zone, including 19 percent (3 for 16) in the first half. The Jayhawks entered the game shooting 48 percent against zone defenses, best in the Big 12 and 21st in the nation.

Wiggins and Perry Ellis were a combined 1 for 8 against the Cardinal’s zone.

Jayhawks couldn't score from inside
Kansas went 10 for 31 in the paint (32 percent). Entering the game, the Jayhawks were shooting 62 percent in the paint for the season.

Kansas averaged 13.7 dunks and layups per game entering the day. It had only six on Sunday.

57 points tie Kansas' fewest in a game this season (61-57 loss to San Diego State on Jan. 5).

Did You Know?
Stanford survived going 0 for 9 from 3-point range to pull out the win. They're only the second team to go 0 for 9 from 3 in an NCAA Tournament win, joining Connecticut, which did so in a win over Gonzaga in 1999. No team has fared worse and won an NCAA Tournament game.

ST. LOUIS -- Stanford upset Kansas 60-57 in the NCAA tournament on Sunday at the Scottrade Center, punching a ticket to the Sweet 16 for the Cardinal behind a stifling defensive effort.

Stanford's size and deliberate play frustrated second-seeded KU from the start. The young Jayhawks never recovered, leading to another untimely March exit that sends the 10th-seeded Cardinal to Memphis to face No. 11 Dayton on Thursday.

Here are five key points from Stanford's 23rd victory of the season:
  • The Jayhawks were listless from the start. The poor outside shooting from its round-of-64 win over Eastern Kentucky on Friday wasn’t as much of a problem against Stanford. In fact, Kansas’ first four field goals came from the perimeter, though all inside the 3-point arc. And when Conner Frankamp buried two 3-pointers in the first half -- including one at the buzzer to give the Jayhawks their first lead -- it appeared things might open inside for KU. Not so much. Stanford largely owned the paint -- and as a result, the pace of this game.
  • Andrew Wiggins played 34 minutes, but he was primarily missing in action throughout. Was this the same guy who scored 41 points against West Virginia just two weeks ago? Wiggins rarely looked to shoot, going 1-of-6 from the field for four points. He appeared lost against the Cardinal’s changing defensive looks, generally disengaged and reluctant to even attempt to carry the Jayhawks, who desperately needed someone to step up. Others on the floor struggled as much as Wiggins, but his lack of aggressiveness was most damaging.
  • Stanford point guard Chasson Randle took over when necessary. He sparked the Cardinal’s early run and a 13-2 burst in the second half after Kansas built a five-point lead, its largest of the game, right out of the locker room. Kansas freshmen Wiggins and Wayne Selden, Jr. struggled on Saturday to speak about Randle when asked in the practice-day news conference. It was understandable. They had yet to receive scouting reports. It was much more troublesome on Sunday to see Randle -- Stanford’s driving force -- race past athletic KU defenders to finish in the paint.
  • Kansas coach Bill Self tried everything he could. For a second straight game, he used Frankamp, the freshman sharpshooter, more than usual. He got a spark off the bench in the final minute of the first half from freshman Brannen Greene. Self tried freshman Landen Lucas in the second half. He showed full-court defensive pressure. None of it worked to sustain energy. The urgency just wasn’t there for KU, potentially a problem for any team that relies so much on freshmen. And now another star freshman, 7-foot center Joel Embiid, injured and unavailable in St. Louis, won’t get to play in this NCAA tournament.
  • Stanford, with its big wings and the imposing Stefan Nastic to guard the rim, is now in position to make a run to the Final Four. Up next is Dayton after it slayed Ohio State and Syracuse, so the Flyers won’t be intimidated in Memphis by the Cardinal’s pedigree. But Stanford is a tough matchup for any opponent because of its diversity. Despite Stanford's size and versatility, Randle, the 6-2 junior, showed in St. Louis that he’s the catalyst for this group. As he goes, so goes Stanford. And Randle’s proving to be a reliable weapon in March.

ST. LOUIS -- There he sat on Friday, a 7-foot specimen -- taller in shoes -- on the bench, dressed in that familiar blue warm-up.

The breakout star of this Kansas basketball season, freshman Joel Embiid didn’t play in Kansas’ tough test of an NCAA tournament opener, an 80-69 victory over 15th-seeded Eastern Kentucky.

His presence at the Scottrade Center, no doubt, torments some of the thousands who drove across the state of Missouri this week. Nursing an injured back, Embiid won’t play in St. Louis. He didn’t play at the Big 12 tournament as Kansas exited in the semifinals.

[+] EnlargeJoel Embiid
MCT via Getty ImagesJoel Embiid, right, has become a fixture on Kansas' bench but could return to the lineup if the Jayhawks advance to the second weekend of the tournament.
He might return next week if the Jayhawks beat Stanford on Sunday and advance to the Sweet 16.

And all of it mattered very little on Friday.

Forget those longing looks to the bench. Kansas trailed 23-14 less than 12 minutes into the game, and it had almost nothing to do with the absence of the imported big man from Cameroon.

The Jayhawks committed 13 turnovers in the first half against EKU’s frenetic-paced defense. Kansas owned the inside, even without Embiid. It did not make a 3-point field goal all day, attempting only seven.

But if it can’t take care of the basketball, even Embiid can’t help.

Which is why the second half on Friday ought to provide hope.

The Jayhawks entered the tournament with a national ranking of No. 299 in turnover margin. Against the Colonels, they hit their per-game figure in the first half -- then lost the handle just once in the final 20 minutes.

Credit Conner Frankamp. He’s another freshman. He’s the antithesis of Embiid, 12 inches shorter and from Wichita, Kan. On Friday, Frankamp understood exactly what the Jayhawks needed.

“There’s a lot of pressure on Conner to be a calming influence on us,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I thought he handled everything beautifully. He ran our team.”

Frankamp started tournament play right there alongside Embiid, figuring he might sit all day. Before Friday, he played 1.8 minutes per game.

Against the Ohio Valley Conference champion, Frankamp stayed on the court for 25, a season high.

“I just try to get in there and feed the ball to whoever is open as best I can and play sound on the offensive end and defensive end,” Frankamp said.

He said he focused on taking care of the basketball. He committed no turnovers, scored 10 points and dished four assists.

Mission accomplished. Little man to the rescue.

Self said the Jayhawks felt fortunate to escape Eastern Kentucky, which used a 10-0 run in the second half to regain a 48-45 lead after Kansas began to assert control.

“The key was to pound the ball inside,” KU forward Perry Ellis said, “and we did that.”

[+] EnlargeConner Frankamp
Icon SMIConner Frankamp's poise and patience helped push Kansas past Eastern Kentucky.
Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor took over. Embiid himself couldn’t have done better work in the paint.

Kansas didn’t need him on Friday. It needed Frankamp, who watched Duke fall to No. 14 seed Mercer before KU took the floor in St. Louis. The game in Raleigh, N.C., reminded the Jayhawks that anything can happen in the tournament.

Still, Self said, he didn’t know if his players “totally respected” Eastern Kentucky’s ability to create havoc.

Senior guard Glenn Cosey led the charge early for the Colonels, hitting four of his first five 3-pointers. He was everywhere on the offensive and defensive ends.

Eastern Kentucky shook Kansas with a tricky zone defense for a few possessions before halftime.

“I didn’t think we attacked it well at all,” Self said.

Once Frankamp entered to restore some order, though, another Kansas freshman, leading scorer Andrew Wiggins -- the rookie who began this season with all the hype -- sent a message with a pair of sky-high dunks en route to 19 points.

The first dunk, an alley-oop in transition from Frank Mason, forced an immediate timeout from EKU coach Jeff Neubauer. The Colonels recovered.

With each slam from Wiggins and Black, who delivered an array of his own after halftime, the Jayhawks looked closer to hammering their way to victory.

But EKU never cracked. The key to victory existed elsewhere on the court.

“We knew that Kansas was a great rebounding team,” Neubauer said, “and we absolutely had to steal it before they could rebound it. In the first half we did that really well.”

Not so well after halftime.

Credit the secret weapon on the bench, the 6-foot freshman who saved the day.

Thanks to Frankamp, that other freshman may soon shed his warm-up and receive an opportunity to return.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Andrew Wiggins rose. But when gravity pulled a trio of Oklahoma State defenders back to earth, he kept climbing.

Wayne Selden Jr. could have thrown that pass anywhere and Wiggins would have grabbed it and flushed that breathtaking alley-oop in the second half.

If there was anyone in the Sprint Center who could stop Wiggins, one of the most hyped freshmen in the history of the college game, he never emerged. If any doubts about Wiggins' assertiveness remained prior to his effort on Thursday in Kansas' 77-70 overtime win over Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals (30 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals), they’ve probably ceased.

Wiggins is excelling now with a clear confidence and a swagger that might not be obvious on the outside, but have been proved in recent months by his performances.

Throughout his methodical dissection of the Cowboys, however, Wiggins never screamed at the guy guarding him or pumped his fists. He never glared at the cameras, popped his collar or slammed the ball on the floor. He just stood there and dominated as injured center Joel Embiid watched from the bench.

That calm was the element of his game that Bill Self wanted to tweak when Wiggins arrived in Lawrence, Kan., last summer. The coach recognized how dominant the top recruit in the 2013 class could be -- we all did -- but he worried that his persona would affect his game.

“I thought coming in that we needed to try to change him and change him in a way where he was outwardly, visibly more energetic, passionate, because he is a stoneface on the court,” Self said the day before Wiggins led Kansas to the win over Oklahoma State and a semifinals matchup against Iowa State on Friday. “And that would have been the worst thing we could have ever done.”

LeBron James was the worst thing that ever happened to Wiggins. Michael Jordan’s aura was contained by a TV world that didn’t air Chicago Bulls games on national TV three or four times a week. His highlights weren’t accessible through YouTube, and he didn’t offer 140-character updates about his life via Twitter or drop freestyle raps on Instagram.

James is the most tangible superstar in NBA history. We know more about him and his everyday life than we knew about the greats of past generations. He’s the best player in the world and the type of player who must be monitored every second he’s on the floor.

He’s appealing and relatively accessible through various channels.

As a result, there is this expectation that our greatest athletes must boast the most engaging personalities. They have to connect with us somehow. We prefer shameless arrogance over timidity. There’s something attractive about cockiness. There’s an intriguing quality about the guy who brags about his Bentleys and his women. Even if we hate his ego, we’re still drawn to him -- ask Floyd Mayweather Jr. We love the outwardly emotional athlete.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Wiggins, Phil Forte, III
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAndrew Wiggins and Phil Forte III chase after a loose ball during Kansas' win over Oklahoma State.
Wiggins doesn’t have any of that. He just plays basketball, talks quietly in postgame news conferences and leaves.

And that has been a major concern about him.

He had stretches in the first chapter of the season that weren’t brilliant. He didn’t attack enough or demand the ball when he should’ve, which is no longer an issue.

But a portion of the criticism has centered on what Self described. We wanted -- want -- Wiggins to show more fire.

I know I did.

In December, I wrote that Wiggins should play like Jabari Parker, who displays an undeniable vigor every time he competes.

And I was wrong.

Wiggins deserved better. I had no business suggesting that he had to play the way that we -- I -- wanted him to play. He deserved an opportunity to just be Andrew Wiggins, even though the preseason hype asked for so much more.

When he’s assessed according to that standard -- that he’s his own man --it’s much easier to see how good he is right now. Wiggins is one of the most unique and effective freshmen we’ve seen at this level, a statement backed by his 41-point outing against West Virginia Saturday and Thursday’s follow-up.

“I'm always open to new things,” Wiggins said. “Coach [Self] teaches me new things every day. Just preparation and practice. Always play hard, run the floor, defend your man and he just made me a better player.”

He might not be LeBron. Or Kevin Durant.

But he’s still special.

When Kansas needed a defensive play against the Cowboys on Thursday, Wiggins blocked shots and stayed in Markel Brown’s face. When the Jayhawks required offense, he scored. Jump shots, 3-pointers, dunks and drives. Effortless.

When Self’s program had to have a play in overtime, Wiggins dove on the floor for loose balls and hustled up the floor, even as 45 minutes of action zapped his lungs.

There are no guarantees that Embiid will return in the postseason after this week’s diagnosis of a stress fracture in his back that will not require surgery. Wiggins, however, accepted the new responsibilities and pressure.

The Jayhawks can still go far with him.

“As the season goes on, you see how much better he’s getting, how much more assertive he’s being,” said Selden, who finished with 14 points. “How much he’s scoring, how much he’s rebounding and blocking shots. He’s just making a case for being the best player in the country.”

Between now and the end of the season, Wiggins will continue to grow and be more decisive. And that should be a scary thought for the young men responsible for limiting him in the coming weeks.

He won’t smile much, though. He won’t suddenly become the vocal leader that the Jayhawks might need. He won’t stomp his feet and talk trash.

He won’t reveal much.

And that’s OK.

“His demeanor allowed him not to have highs and not to have lows,” Self said Wednesday. “He’s been pretty steady. He’s had a few highs, but his lows haven’t been low. … He’s been pretty steady in large part with how he’s handled the situation because he doesn’t really care about anything going on outside. He only cares about what’s going on inside.”

Toward the end of Kansas’ news conference Thursday, Wiggins finished a response to a reporter’s question with an awkward “Um, yeah” and a smile. Then, he put his head down and giggled. The rest of the room joined him.

There’s certainly a personality there.

It’s just not the one that we might crave. And that’s our problem. Not his.

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week17

March, 13, 2014

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: On Nov. 21, 2013, the first 2013-14 Wooden Watch column went live. The No. 1 player? Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart. Heady days, right? Smart held on to the top spot for two more weeks before yielding it to UConn's Shabazz Napier. Napier kept it for one week before we pivoted to Aaron Gordon, back when we couldn't decide which Arizona player was most valuable. In Week 6, Jabari Parker assumed the top spot. In Week 8, McDermott rose to No. 1. This is what I wrote at the time:

"As we’ve discussed ad nauseam, the POY award is often about (A) being really good at basketball and (B) building so much perceptual momentum that your honor starts feeling inevitable. Both players have done just that so far. Parker is the insanely gifted freshman; McDermott might finish his career with 3,000 points. If this is a two-man race for the next three months, don’t say you weren’t warned."

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
AP Photo/Nati HarnikDoug McDermott has made what was once a captivating race for the Wooden Award into one big victory lap.
Actually, you weren't warned. I was wrong. This hasn't been a two-man race. It's been a joyous, weekly, one-man exhibition.

Were you to scroll through four months of Wooden Watches, you'd notice McDermott's name atop the list in every week since Week 8. But even if you don't read a word, you'll feel his case building. Every week, McDermott's blurb got a little bit longer. Every week, the rest of the list got smaller. Every week, the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (ACMcDAT) crammed more and more data into bulleted points. In Week 16, after McDermott became the first player since Lionel Simmons to post three straight seasons with 750 or more points, I was almost numb to the numbers. Exhausted, even. He was so good we ran out of ways to say it.

On Saturday, McDermott ended his regular-season career with 45 points on 25 shots in a Senior Night blowout of Providence -- and, in the process, passed the career 3,000-point mark (3,011) with plenty of postseason to spare. The crowd in Omaha, Neb., gave him a stirring ovation. His dad, Creighton coach Greg McDermott, gave him a hug and a slap on the head. In a few weeks, the Associated Press will give him his third straight first-team All-American honor, and make him the first player since Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale to do so. At the Final Four, the Los Angeles Athletic Club will give him the John R. Wooden National Player of the Year Award.

For four years -- and especially the last four months -- McDermott gave us more beautiful basketball than any player in decades. The awards will be the least we can do to say thanks.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Parker might not have come close to making this a two-man race, but that shouldn't obscure the excellent season he's had. While using 31.4 percent of his team's possessions and taking 31.8 percent of its shots, Parker has posted a 113.3 offensive rating. He's also rebounded 24.0 percent of opponents' available misses -- he might not be a great defender, but he's been Duke's anchor on the defensive glass all season. (He's also blocked 4.3 percent of available shots, which tends to get overlooked.) Without him, the Blue Devils would be a good offense and an irredeemable defense. With him, they're great on offense and so-so defensively. His value has been immense.

3. Russ Smith, Louisville: All season, we've been worried that Smith would end up overlooked again. Louisville had a bad nonconference schedule and some stumbles here and there; the Chane Behanan dismissal could have derailed its entire season. And so, despite having the most efficient season of his career -- a year after being the best two-way play in the country, no less -- Smith could have gone overlooked.

We seem to have avoided that fate. Both the USBWA and Sporting News gave Smith first-team All-American honors this week; the Associated Press is likely to follow suit. Meanwhile, Louisville has won nine of its last 10 and is arguably playing the best all-around basketball in the country right now. If Smith's efficient scoring and passing and general Russ Smith-ness haven't impressed you yet, you have ample opportunity to catch up in the weeks to come.

4. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The only time I've ever felt the urge to give a college basketball player a hug came was Jan. 9, 2012. The post-Kemba Walker UConn Huskies were sloughing their way through Jim Calhoun's final season as coach, and Calhoun was desperately searching for some self-leadership. Napier, then a sophomore, cast himself in the role. His teammates had other ideas:
"I try to tell the guys, I feel as if I’m their best leader. Sometimes they give me a chance, sometimes they don’t," Napier said then. "That’s just how it is. It’s just basketball, I guess. ... I try my best to be a leader, even though guys don’t give me a chance to be that person. It shows in the game, I can’t lie. When we have a tipped ball and big guys get the ball and I’m yelling for the ball back out, we’ve got a new shot clock and they go back up ... that shows I’m not that much of a leader. When a play starts breaking down and I’m yelling, ‘Bring it out, bring it out,’ and Boat or Jeremy takes a shot, that just shows that I’m not a leader. It sucks, because we lose games like that. But I try my best. I’m just a human being, I try to do my best in helping my teammates out."

Two years later, Napier is as respected a player as there is in the college game, both by his teammates and by opponents. It helps that he's as good a guard as there is in the college game, too -- a scorer/distributor/defender capable of bending entire halves to his will. Watching him go from disrespected sophomore to beloved senior has been a treat four years in the making.

[+] EnlargeSean Kilpatrick
AP Photo/Al BehrmanSean Kilpatrick has been the focal point of Cincinnati's run to an American Athletic Conference co-championship.
5. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Cincinnati's 97-84 win over Memphis on March 6 could fool the casual observer into thinking Kilpatrick is merely the chief among a score of Bearcats offensive options. Not true: For most of the season, he's been the Bearcats' only offensive option. But the March 6 win was a pretty good primer: Kilpatrick finished with 34 points on 11-of-18 from the field and 10-of-11 from the free throw line with zero turnovers. The Bearcats are usually not that fluid on offense; most of the time, they wear teams out on the defensive end and let Kilpatrick do most of the creation on offense. The formula has worked, because Kilpatrick is just that good.

6. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Johnson's season was not without its bumps, the most notable of which came immediately after forward Brandon Ashley was lost for the season to an foot injury. But Johnson has rebounded -- literally and metaphorically -- in the weeks since. He hasn't put up huge offensive numbers, but like Smith, Napier and Kilpatrick, he's one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, and maybe the most versatile. Arizona's offense might have taken a post-Ashley hit, but its defense is still the best in the country. Johnson has played a major role in that.

7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: It's hard not to give this spot to point guard Fred VanVleet. VanVleet was, after all, the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year, and fairly so: he posted a 131.5 offensive rating with a 33.2 percent assist rate and a tiny 13.8 percent turnover percentage, what my Insider colleague John Gasaway called "a near-perfect season for a pass-first point guard."

So why stick with Early? Because he's the sun around which Wichita State revolves. The Shockers are an ensemble production, sure, but Early is the only player to use more than 22 percent of the team's offensive possessions, using 26.5 percent -- and takes 28 percent of their shots to boot. Tekele Cotton might be the team's best defender, Ron Baker its best shooter, VanVleet its best passer. But Early does all of those things very well almost all of the time.

8. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Thames struggled a bit down the stretch, including one 10-for-50 span that looked like it might knock him out of any and all postseason award consideration. And it did, kind of: Thames wasn't on the Wooden Committee's final ballot. That's a mistake. Thames got back on track in his final three games, including a 23-point, five-steal effort in the Aztecs' grinding regular-season title clincher against New Mexico Saturday, and finished with a 119.1 offensive rating on nearly 28 percent usage (in addition to a 3.4 percent steal rate, a 22.1 assist rate, 38 percent from 3, etc.). The Aztecs finished the regular season 27-3 because they were a) a great defensive team and b) a great defensive team with a reliable star scorer. Thames belongs on one of the All-American teams at the very least.

9. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: On Saturday, Wiggins scored 41 points on 18 shots with eight rebounds, five steals and four blocks. And Kansas lost. Those two sentences don't compute, but if anything, Wiggins' blowout regular-season finale gave us a chance to point out how solid he's been for pretty much all of his freshman season. He's scored reliably, he's rebounded, he's played lockdown inside-out defense -- he's been really good. He hasn't been the second coming. Sometimes, he's been too passive. But many coaches would kill for his baseline production, let alone the possibility he might go off for 41 on 18 at any given time. If he is 75 percent as good in the postseason, look out.

10. T.J. Warren, NC State: For better or worse, the player of the year award is about the value a player contributes to his team's success. You'll notice there aren't too many players on this list whose teams aren't going to make the NCAA tournament. That should let you know just how good Warren was individually for the probably-NIT-bound Wolfpack in 2013-14: He posted a 115.2 percent offensive rating on a McDermott-ian 37 percent of his team's shots; he averaged 24.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and shot 53.2 percent from the field. He finished the season with back-to-back 41- and 42-point efforts (on 17 and 21 field goal attempts to boot) against Pitt and Boston College, respectively.

Warren did all of this despite facing constant double and triple teams for a team that finished eighth in the ACC in points allowed per possession. If the Wolfpack had guarded better, we'd get to see this dude try to singlehandedly take over the NCAA tournament, and the tournament would be better for it. But they didn't, and so, barring an ACC tourney miracle, we won't. Shame.

Honorable mentions: Casey Prather (Florida), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Joel Embiid (Kansas), Marcus Paige (North Carolina).

Video: Andrew Wiggins' potential

March, 12, 2014

Andrew Wiggins' 41-point outburst against West Virginia was a standout college performance and a clear demonstration of the Kansas freshman's potential in the NBA.

Saturday by the numbers

March, 9, 2014

Saturday, the last full day of regular-season college hoops, was a grand affair. We had overtime and history-making matchups and buzzer-beaters and memorable Senior Nights.

And the NCAA tournament hasn’t even started.

It’s probably best to recap this day according to its most significant numbers:

3,000: Bill Walton won two national championships with UCLA. Lew Alcindor won three national titles for the Bruins. J.J. Redick shattered records at Duke during his time there. Ralph Sampson won three consecutive Naismith player of the year awards at Virginia. Sampson, Alcindor and Walton are three of the greatest athletes who ever played at the collegiate level. But none of the aforementioned four players scored 3,000 points in their respective careers. Now, it’s only fair to note that eligibility limits blocked freshmen from competing with the varsity squads then and the 3-point line wasn’t available, either.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
AP Photo/Nati HarnikCreighton's Doug McDermott because just the eighth player to score more than 3,000 career points.
None of that diminishes what Doug McDermott has accomplished, however, as the senior forward became just the eighth player in NCAA history to score 3,000 career points. He reached that historic tally on a 3-pointer with 11:27 to play in Creighton’s 88-73 win over Providence on Saturday. He finished with 45 points total and 3,011 for his career to date.

4: Iowa State and Oklahoma State have had two battles this season. And after Saturday’s thriller, the Cyclones can claim both victories over the Pokes, but they needed four overtimes to get there. The first game, a 98-97 win for Iowa State, demanded triple overtime in Stillwater. Naz Long hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to drag Saturday’s game into the extra period in Ames, where Iowa State secured the 85-81 victory in the rematch.

41: Remember that stuff about Andrew Wiggins not being aggressive enough? Well, that’s so 2013. The freshman, a finalist for the Wooden Award, has been one of America’s best players in recent months. Proof? He dropped a career-high 41 points in Kansas’ 92-86 loss at West Virginia. At one point in the game, the Mountaineers had a 64-39 lead. But the Jayhawks, who were missing Joel Embiid, had a chance in the end. Yes, Kansas suffered a loss, which doesn’t help its argument for a top seed. But Wiggins produced the second-highest point total for a freshman in Big 12 history, per ESPN Stats & Information. That’s impressive.

18-0: Kentucky made things interesting for a moment. But the Wildcats couldn’t handle Florida’s full onslaught in the Gators’ 84-65 victory in Gainesville, a win that gave Florida a perfect 18-0 record in conference play. The Gators are the first team in SEC history to finish a year with 18 wins, per ESPN Stats & Information. The win also extended Florida’s winning streak to 23 games.

13: In the final home game of his career at Louisville, Russ “Russdiculous” Smith decided to let his teammates shine. He dished out a career-high 13 assists during an 81-48 Senior Night win over UConn.

1: With Cincinnati topping Rutgers and Louisville beating UConn, the American Athletic Conference had a problem. The Bearcats and Cardinals split the league title so the conference used a coin flip to finalize the top seed in next week’s AAC tourney. The winner? Cincinnati. "I requested that Coach Pitino and I play one game of liar's poker," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin joked to reporters after the game. “We used to do that all the time -- for fun, obviously.”

7 minutes, 32 seconds: That’s how long Arizona went without a field goal in the second half of a 64-57 road loss to Oregon, which snapped the Wildcats' five-game winning streak. That drought helped the Ducks seize a commanding lead via their 17-5 run.

73 seconds: That’s how much time remained in the game when Glenn Robinson III hit a go-ahead 3-pointer in Michigan's 84-80 win over Indiana.

33: Wins for undefeated Wichita State after Saturday’s 67-42 victory over Missouri State in the Missouri Valley Conference tourney semifinals. The Shockers are just the third team in Division I history to achieve a 33-0 mark, per ESPN Stats & Information.

30: Jabari Parker's career high in a 93-81 win over North Carolina at Cameron Indoor (most points by a Duke freshman in a matchup against North Carolina, according to ESPN Stats & Information), which gave Duke 33 consecutive home wins -- a Division I-high that the Blue Devils currently share with Stephen F. Austin.

2007: Eastern Kentucky upset top-seeded Belmont, 79-73, in the Ohio Valley tourney title game. The Colonels became the second team to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament this season. And they’ll be dancing for the first time since 2007.

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week16

March, 6, 2014

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Tuesday night wasn't exactly Creighton's best showing. The Bluejays were outplayed for pretty much all 40 minutes at Georgetown, as the Hoyas' seniors -- especially Markel Starks -- fought desperately to improve their bubble lot. It was bad on both sides of the floor for Creighton. There were uncharacteristic offensive struggles: Grant Gibbs turning the ball over, Ethan Wragge going 1-for-6 from 3, Jahenns Manigat made a nonfactor through foul trouble, and so on. Worse, the Bluejays reverted to the liability-level defense that held them back in past years: Georgetown shot 65 percent from 2 and scored 1.23 points per trip. A lot of those looks were open.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsHow good has Doug McDermott been? He scored 22 points and had 12 boards against Georgetown and it was considered a bad game.
Two McDermott possessions cemented the off night. The first, in the first half, was a relatively open 3 that missed the rim by a wider distance than maybe any McDermott miss ever. The second, in the second half, was a baseline drive in which McDermott -- who was guarded well by Jabril Trawick for most of the game -- got the matchup he wanted against Nate Lubick, and pivoted past him to the baseline, and then just plum missed a wide-open layin. McDermott finished with 12 rebounds, but just 22 points on 23 shots, and he needed a late batch of last-ditch 3s to get there. It was a rough night for the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker.

And you know what? It doesn't matter. McDermott has had this award sewn up for weeks. We're just going through the motions. When 22 points and 12 rebounds is considered a so-so game -- or, say, when those 22 points make you the first person since Lionel Simmons (1987-88, 1988-89, 1989-90) to score 750 in three straight seasons -- your Wooden Award isn't going to be threatened by a late-season loss to a desperate bubble team.

In any case, here's the mother of all ACMcDAT sirens: Creighton's final home game of the season, the last of McDermott's career, comes Saturday against Providence. McDermott needs 34 points to reach 3,000 for his career.

On Tuesday, a reporter asked his father and coach, Greg McDermott, if he would let his son go for the record if he was close with enough time on the clock.

"If his mother has anything to say about it, probably,” McDermott said.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Like McDermott, Parker saw his team lose a road game in the final week of conference play, an 82-72 loss Wednesday at Wake Forest. The Blue Devils allowed 46 points in the second half at Wake, which likewise hints at some of the defensive issues they (like Creighton) have had at various points with this configuration. And like McDermott, Parker still had a pretty solid outing relative to just about any player in the country -- 19 points, 11 rebounds, 7-of-11 shooting. McDermott has been our obvious No. 1 for a while, and remains so this week. Parker is a similarly codified consensus No. 2. Also, he makes a mean dessert bar.

3. Russ Smith, Louisville: The Cardinals unleashed perhaps their best performance of the season Wednesday night at SMU, and got arguably the best of Smith's season, too. Russdiculous' line -- 26 points on 15 shots, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals -- was a perfect microcosm of what he's done all season, and what makes him so valuable: efficient scoring, timely distributing, unyielding perimeter defense.

4. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Napier was an early front-runner for the Wooden Award this season before a couple of bad early conference losses knocked him off our radar. UConn has had its blips, but Napier has been steadily great, averaging 17.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game as the Huskies' anchor.

5. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Kilpatrick is having his worst mini-stretch of the season these past two weeks, including a 3-for-14 3-point performance in a close loss to Louisville and Saturday's 2-for-8, seven-turnover struggle in 37 minutes at UConn. But Kilpatrick did still have 28 points in that loss to Louisville -- 28 of his team's 57, no less -- and even when he's not scoring, he's still one of the best guard-defenders in the country.

[+] EnlargeNick Johnson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNick Johnson has been a force on both ends of the floor, and a big reason why Arizona's defense is among the nation's best.
6. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Our ability to track defensive metrics at a glance still lags way behind our ability to track offense, which is why it can be difficult to factor defense into national player of the year and All-American award discussions. But many of the players in this top 10 are here because they excel on both ends of the floor, and Johnson is a key example. Arizona's defense still allows the fewest points per trip of any team in the country, even without Brandon Ashley, and not all of that is due to Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon in the lane. Johnson is a fantastic gap defender in Sean Miller's pack-line hybrid defense, and a major factor in for the post-Ashley Wildcats.

7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Missouri Valley Conference voters awarded Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet with the league's POY trophy this week, and it's hard to argue with the reasoning. VanVleet has been great. So has guard Ron Baker. And Darius Carter. And Tekele Cotton. When you go 31-0, you tend to get a lot of really great individual performances. We'll still take Early, Wichita State's most-used player by a fair margin and its most important all-around offensive and defensive contributor.

8. Casey Prather, Florida: It's hard to believe Florida's last loss came all the way back on Dec. 2, but it's true. That game, at UConn, took place when the Gators had, like, six available players, back when Prather was still surprising us with his sudden scoring turn as a senior. Prather's usage has dropped as the Gators have gotten healthy (Kasey Hill) and eligible (Chris Walker), but his efficiency has held firm, and more than any other Florida player he's the reason why Billy Donovan's team managed to overcome so much personnel drama in the first place. The breadth of his season deserves honorifics.

9. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: We thought about dropping Thames from the list after a brutal 10-for-50 slump bracketed the Aztecs' losses to Wyoming and New Mexico. But Thames got back on track against Fresno State Saturday and kept it going Wednesday when his 19-point effort keyed a comeback win at UNLV. Like Prather (and not unlike Kilpatrick), his whole-season contributions to an SDSU team without another consistent offensive option are too great, in aggregate, to overlook.

10. Kyle Anderson, UCLA: "Slo-mo" has numbers that are kind of crazy. He's averaging 14.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and from 3. That is exactly the kind of game the 6-foot-8 Anderson's unique skill set promised when he entered college a year ago. It took him a little bit, but he got there this season. He does it all.

Honorable mentions: Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), T.J. Warren (NC State), Bryce Cotton (Providence), Billy Baron (Rhode Island Canisius)

Kansas looking tournament ready

February, 25, 2014

As talk slowly turns to NCAA tournament preparedness, plenty of teams around the nation come with a caveat.

In East Lansing, Mich., the Spartans can’t wait until they get healthy.

In Syracuse, N.Y., the Orange can’t wait until their offense comes around.

In Lexington, Ky., the Wildcats can’t wait until the kids put it all together.

That's not the case in Lawrence, Kan. The Jayhawks simply can’t wait until March.

[+] EnlargeKansas
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsThere has been a lot for the red-hot Kansas Jayhawks to cheer about recently.
Kansas looks ready now. It is one of the few teams that no longer has a caveat after clinching at least a share of its 10th straight Big 12 regular-season title with an 83-75 win over Oklahoma on Monday.

In doing so the Jayhawks also unofficially served notice to the four potential No. 1 NCAA tournament seeds: Florida, Wichita State, Arizona and Syracuse -- all projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi as top seeds in Monday's Bracketology -- had better finish the regular season strong. KU is looking more and more like a top seed and already has constructed a resume strong enough to snatch one.

It has been an impressive job by KU coach Bill Self to mold a team that starts three freshmen and relies heavily on a fourth coming off the bench. As Kentucky coach John Calipari can attest, it’s not easy relying on freshmen talent.

Kansas took its time getting to this point. Playing a challenging nonconference schedule that included current top-15 teams Florida, Duke, Villanova and San Diego State certainly revealed flaws early on.

A snapshot of the Jayhawks earlier in the season showed a number of problems, including instability at point guard and uncertainty from their most talented player -- freshman forward Andrew Wiggins.

Self appears to have worked all of that out now. Wiggins sent a pretty loud message against Texas on Saturday. The Longhorns shut him down in their first meeting, but he was unstoppable in the rematch, scoring 21 points -- including three 3-pointers.

Junior guard Naadir Tharpe has brought valuable experience to the point guard position that showed late against the Sooners. Twice when Oklahoma had the ball trailing by just one possession late in the second half, Tharpe came up with a steal to prevent the Jayhawks from being tied or losing their lead.

It was Tharpe’s game-high 19 points that led Kansas, which had five players score in double figures. The Jayhawks have four players who average double figures scoring, led by Wiggins’ 16.4 points per game.

That kind of balance is what makes Kansas, which is also shooting more than 50 percent from the floor in conference play, so hard to defend.

The Sooners had a chance to take control late in the first half, as five KU players got into early foul trouble and made limited appearances. Tharpe played nine minutes, Wiggins 10 and Perry Ellis 11 due to early foul trouble.

It mattered little as freshman guard Wayne Selden Jr. scored 13 of his 15 points before halftime. The Jayhawks flexed their depth and, despite having key players on the bench, forged a 42-33 lead at intermission.

Rebounding is also a balanced affair for KU. Five players had at least four boards against the Sooners, and those same five players outrebounded Oklahoma 32-29.

Freshman center Joel Embiid grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds for KU. His continued development is another reason the Jayhawks look tournament-ready. The 7-footer entered Monday second in the Big 12 in blocks per game with 2.6 and collected six against the undersized Sooners.

If you aren't yet familiar with Embiid or any of the Jayhawks, you might want to learn their names. They look like a team that’s going to be playing for a while come tournament time.

Planning for Success: KU's offense

February, 24, 2014
By now, a handful of the notions advanced in November and December about the 2013-14 Kansas Jayhawks look hilariously quaint. No, this isn't the season Kansas will finally relinquish its stranglehold on the Big 12 regular-season title; the Jayhawks are 12-2 with a three-game lead on Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas with just four games left to play. Yes, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are really, really good. No, the Kansas offense isn't too stagnant to be relied upon.

All these and more were driven home in Kansas' 85-54 annihilation of Texas on Saturday. But it's the last one -- about KU's offense -- that is especially worth dispelling in advance of Monday night's visit from Oklahoma (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), because against some odds, it is the Jayhawks' offense that will define their season.

[+] EnlargeJoel Embiid
Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/MCT/Getty ImagesJoel Embiid and the rest of the Jayhawks have risen above the Big 12 fray offensively, putting Kansas on the verge of a 10th consecutive conference title.
The offense-or-lack-thereof critique was the most noteworthy at the time. In late November in the Bahamas, Villanova held KU to 59 points in 71 possessions. A day later, Kansas escaped UTEP 67-61 in 64 trips. Colorado limited Kansas (72 points, 67 trips) effectively in its Dec. 7 win in Boulder, and Florida held Kansas to 61 points in 64 possessions in Gainesville later that week.

And then came San Diego State. The Aztecs' win in Lawrence -- the first nonconference win by any team in Allen Fieldhouse in 68 games -- was a 65-possession, 61-57 clinic in how to make the Jayhawks look pedestrian. SDSU raced back in transition, crowded all available driving lanes, prevented clean post entries, and essentially begged Kansas to beat it from outside. Kansas couldn't.

How often does a team score .94 points per trip and win at Allen Fieldhouse? At the time, that performance was a sign of how far behind Bill Self's unusually young team seemed. The Jayhawks could overpower inferior foes with sheer talent, but against smart, athletically capable defenses, their offense could be made to stall.

That hasn't been remotely true since.

The Aztecs were Kansas' last nonconference foe. Since Big 12 play began, the Jayhawks have averaged 1.19 points per possession -- more than Wichita State has scored against the Missouri Valley. Only Duke and Creighton, the two best offensive teams in the country, have been better in conference play; Louisville is close. All three have a larger selection of stats-inflating bottom-feeders in their leagues. Save for TCU, Kansas has had no such luxury.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about KU's offense is how good it has been despite its willingness to give the ball away. Kansas is turning the ball over on 18.1 percent of its possessions in conference play. This is actually an improvement from earlier in the season, when that number was up around the 22-percent mark. And it's still way too high, and it still basically doesn't matter, because Wiggins, Embiid, Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis are still eschewing 3s and finishing interior buckets more effectively than any team in the country. As we saw on Saturday -- and are likely to see again Monday night against the Sooners -- the Jayhawks have done far more than "figure out" their offense. They've thrived.

Perhaps the place Self's atypically advanced development timeline has shown up is on defense. In the past decade, no coach has churned out top-10 efficiency defenses as reliably as Self; the Jayhawks' adjusted defensive efficiency rankings from 2007-13 range from No. 1 to No. 11, and usually tend toward the former. This season? No. 27. The last time a Kansas defense was just merely good -- because let's keep things in perspective -- was 2005.

For anyone who watched Kansas during this historic nine-year run of Big 12 supremacy, the makeup of the 2013-14 team has been a little jarring. Here we have a brilliant Jayhawks offense that doesn't shoot the ball all that well from outside, turns it over a bit too much, and is still brilliant all the same playing out in front of a defense that is uncharacteristically not amazing. It's a different formula, one Self has invented on the fly. But it's working, and pushing Kansas ever closer to a remarkable 10th straight Big 12 title, all the same.
Saturday turned insane late, and for reasons only tangentially related to basketball. But before that, it was a pretty standard day of basketball. Boring, even. There weren’t many great games, and there weren’t many big surprises, and thus Kansas State’s 74-57 win over Texas was one of two or maybe three notable exceptions.

Whatever the context, Kansas State’s thorough demolition of the Longhorns changes the stakes for Monday night’s home game against in-state rival Kansas (9 p.m. ET on ESPN/WatchESPN). Actually, that’s not quite accurate: This is Kansas State hosting Kansas in The Octagon of Doom, so the stakes are a constant. But K-State's win over Texas does change the outlook. After a few weeks of mostly mediocre output, the Wildcats suddenly look more than capable of downing the Jayhawks.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Foster
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesKansas State freshman Marcus Foster scored an efficient 34 points vs. the Longhorns but Kansas' athleticism will test him on Monday.
This has a lot to do -- first things first -- with Kansas State freshman Marcus Foster. Foster was almost perfect Saturday: He shot 8-of-8 from 2 and 5-of-8 from 3 for 34 points against one of the 15 or 20 best defensive teams in the country. It was a breakout game for perhaps the nation’s most under-the-radar freshman, and just in time for Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid to come to town.

Foster is unlikely to have quite as easy a time against the Jayhawks, and not just because it’s impossible to replicate a 34-points-on-16-shots tour de force like the one he just submitted. Kansas is, probably even as you read this, spending a great deal of its time focusing on how to play Foster with one and sometimes two defenders, to deny the ball on Bruce Weber’s motion screens, and to force the action into the hands of Kansas State’s supporting players. It’s likewise safe to assume Wiggins will draw the Foster assignment for whole swaths of the game, and Wiggins -- who is as quick as any guard but is 6-foot-7 and scary-athletic -- is a nightmare matchup for an undersized perimeter.

So that’s an interesting thing to watch. But more likely, the game will turn in the paint, where both teams truly excel.

When you score 1.17 points per trip in conference play, as Kansas has, you’re usually doing a lot of things right. The Jayhawks are. They lead the league in 2-point field goal percentage (55.6) and, somewhat surprisingly, in 3-point accuracy (41.8). But that latter figure is mostly a product of shot selection. The Jayhawks don’t shoot many 3s -- just 27.9 percent of their field goals come from beyond the arc -- so the shots they do take come with a special level of consideration. The only thing Kansas doesn’t do particularly well is handle the ball: The Jayhawks are still turning it over on 20.2 percent of their possessions in league play. But when Kansas doesn’t turn it over, and especially when it gets the ball near the rim, it typically scores.

The lone exception? An 81-69 loss at Texas on Feb. 1, when the Jayhawks scored just a point per trip and had 12 of their shots blocked by the Longhorns.

Kansas State’s defense, meanwhile, is the best in the Big 12 to date. It is holding opponents to the lowest combined field-goal percentage, and the lowest 2-point field-goal percentage. In half-court sets, according to, Kansas State opponents attempt just 30.7 percent of their shots at the rim. More frequently -- nearly 40 percent of the time -- K-State opponents have to settle for shots in the sub-optimal midrange, where they shoot just 30.3 percent. Good perimeter defense starts the process, while rotations by Shane Southwell and Thomas Gipson help seal off the paint. Good shots rarely result.

The Foster-Wiggins-Embiid freshman wow factor might dominate discussion of this game, and that’s fine: Foster deserves that attention. But the Jayhawks’ trip to Bramlage Monday night is most likely to be won or lost based on if and how Kansas gets the ball to the front of the rim. Kansas State’s defense may just have a surprise in store.

Video: Impact performance nominees

February, 2, 2014
The Capital One Cup Impact Performances of the Week include Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick, SMU's Markus Kennedy and Iowa State's Melvin Ejim.

Longhorns standing tall in Big 12

February, 1, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas -- Midway through the first half came a play that defined not just Texas' 81-69 victory over Kansas, but the Longhorns' season.

Texas guard Isaiah Taylor continued his dribble and crashed into Kansas center Joel Embiid after a reaching foul had already been called. Embiid tried to snatch the ball away, and, as Taylor jerked it away, it sailed out of bounds.

The brief physical exchange left the 6-foot-1 Taylor standing toe-to-toe and jawing in the face of the Jayhawks’ 7-footer.

Taylor made it clear he wasn’t backing down.

Neither was Texas.

Following Taylor’s lead, Texas brought the fight to Kansas.

The Longhorns don’t have a roster full of projected NBA first-round picks, but they have toughness. And it will carry them to more marquee wins like Saturday's.

"I felt like Texas was the hungrier team today," Kansas coach Bill Self said.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Taylor
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesIsaiah Taylor set a tough tone for Texas in its home victory over Kansas.
Starting with Taylor. His energy seemed to ignite the Longhorns, and his quickness confounded Kansas defenders. Taylor had one of his best performances of the season with a game-high 23 points.

"They say that the offensive tempo and defensive tempo ends and starts with me," Taylor said. "Just knowing that they encourage me to do that, it helps my team and it helps my confidence."
While Self said the Longhorns were hungrier Saturday, guard Demarcus Holland said they've been that way for a while now.

They know how fast things can turn. Texas started Big 12 play with consecutive losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and flirted with a third loss at Texas Tech before squeezing out a victory. Now that the Horns have won four in a row over ranked teams and, at 6-2, sit one game behind Kansas for first place, Holland said there was no room for complacency.

"We don’t think we’re better than what we are," Holland said. "We know who we are as a team; we know what we have to get better at. We’re not going to let it get to our heads or anything like that."

Texas coach Rick Barnes won’t let it, or more three-hour practices will be in the forecast.

With a week off between games, Barnes allowed the team to have Sunday and Monday off after their victory over Baylor last Saturday. Barnes noted that the team hasn't "responded well to two days off."

Right on cue, the players returned to the court Tuesday and were flat and listless. Instead of allowing them to stay that way, Barnes kept the team practicing until two hours became three. At a time of the season when he normally tapers off hard practices, it sent a message.

"I didn’t feel like we were getting done what we needed to get done," Barnes said. "You’re always tweaking and adding some things, but it was more just the mental side of it."

The Longhorns responded to Barnes' prompting. Thursday’s practice was back at the level Barnes expected, and it carried over into their game against the Jayhawks.

Texas held the Jayhawks to 38.5 percent shooting from the floor, which was second only to 29.8 percent in a loss to San Diego State as Kansas' worst percentage of the season. The Longhorns frustrated Andrew Wiggins, who was coming off a career-best 29 points against Iowa State. The freshman star missed his first nine shots from the floor and finished with seven points on 2-of-12 shooting.

"That was definitely the toughest team we’ve played, probably even some of our [nonconference] games we had," Kansas guard Naadir Tharpe said.

Texas' toughness comes from getting contributions from seemingly whoever is in the lineup.

Jonathan Holmes added to Taylor's scoring outburst with 22 points of his own. Holland tied a career-high with 11 rebounds and Cameron Ridley added 10. Ridley and Prince Ibeh also had four blocks each as the Longhorns' 12 blocks tied a season high.

"We’re not just counting on one guy," Barnes said. "We’ve had different guys at different times do different things to help us win, and that’s what has been the beauty of this group."

Depends on who is doing the viewing. Holland said the beauty was in knowing there is more to come.

"The best thing about it is we know we haven’t peaked yet," Holland said. "We still have a lot of room to get better, and we’re looking forward to it."

Video: Wooden Watch: Top freshman

February, 1, 2014

Rece Davis, Jalen Rose, Digger Phelps and Jay Bilas take a look at the five freshmen on the Wooden Midseason Top 25 list.