Andrew Wiggins can't do it alone
Kansas' freshman was at his best in a loss to Florida, but his teammates were not
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Andrew Wiggins held the ball above his head and screamed in desperation.
With the game on the line in the final minutes of No. 19 Florida's 67-61 win over No. 13 Kansas on Tuesday night, his teammates had abandoned him on the baseline, nearly prompting a turnover on the inbound pass before Frank Mason rescued him.
That moment was a metaphor for this entire troubling start. Wiggins can't overcome Kansas' weaknesses alone. Even if he could walk on water – and he was otherworldly in his definitive 26-point, 11-rebound, two-block performance -- the rules wouldn't let him pass to himself.
The Jayhawks need a combination of a deliberate Wiggins, efficient starters, reserves who make an impact and a defense that protects the paint and the perimeter (the Jayhawks rank seventh in the Big 12 in 3-point field goal percentage defense).
They didn't have that combo in Gainesville. They didn't have it in Boulder, where they lost to Colorado, or at the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they lost to Villanova, either.
"I think it's on everybody," Wiggins said. "No one on the team lets all the pressure or all the negativity go to one person."
Wiggins needs someone, anyone, to ensure that he never goes another five minutes without a touch in the middle of an opponent's 21-0 run. He needs someone, anyone, to alert him when Patric Young's gladiator screens are threatening his livelihood. He needs someone, anyone, to recognize that it's not all on him. Can't be.
The Jayhawks made a million mistakes at the O'Connell Center. Well, it felt like a million.
And some of them are extensions of complicated equations for Bill Self.
Freshmen Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene and sophomore Andrew White III are the top 3-point shooters on the squad. But the Jayhawks take a defensive hit when they play. So how can Self utilize the trio to remedy one of his team's most significant issues (Kansas is eighth in the Big 12 in 3-point shooting) and avoid the defensive quandary that their collective presence presents?
And what about Tarik Black, who averaged 8.1 PPG and 4.8 RPG for Memphis last season? He remade his body after his arrival. He looked the part of a rugged forward who would boost the Jayhawks' frontcourt. But his stats on Tuesday -- two missed shots, three fouls in six minutes -- offered little proof of that. Plus, he hasn't scored in three games.
"If your offense sucks in football, usually you look at the quarterback," Self said. "It doesn't fall on the point guards totally. They can do better but we can all do better. But certainly I don't think our guard play has been very consistent so far."
Self added: "I don't think our guards do anything to help [Wiggins] right now."
Those are problems Self will try to solve in practices, meetings and workouts this week. The solutions will probably involve diagrams, playbooks and basketball jargon that most don't understand.
Most of Kansas' crippling issues, however, are not that complex.
On Tuesday night, Selden wrestled for a critical loose ball in the second half. But someone tried to snatch it from him.
It was Kansas reserve and teammate Landen Lucas.
Selden didn't know it and continued to fight, which led to a traveling violation.
A simple "I got it!" might've worked.
But they didn't talk. Communication was rare throughout the game.
There's just too much silence on this roster. When you can't score for eight-plus minutes, somebody should be yelling at someone for something.
As Florida amassed an 18-point first-half edge, Tharpe seemed as shell-shocked as his freshman teammates. Black missed easy layups. Perry Ellis took three shots the entire night and committed as many turnovers.
Self doesn't have many veterans. That trio is the acting leadership committee of a young squad that needs it. But Black, Tharpe and Ellis weren't the stabilizers they had to be when Florida turned the game with that stunning run.
Add that to the list of problems.
"They don't have anybody they can fall back on," Self said about his freshmen. "I can't blame it all on youth."
The fixable follies diluted one of the most fluid displays of the 2013-14 season. Wiggins looked like a No. 1 pick, especially in the second half.
He has been criticized by many, including me, for his measured assertiveness. But that wasn't an issue Tuesday.
He did everything he could. He stopped shots at the rim. He ran around screens and defended multiple Gators. He finished strong and gave Kansas a chance in the final minutes when he hit three consecutive 3s and a pair of free throws.
It wasn't enough. And it will never be enough if the Jayhawks fail to address future deficits as a group.
A five-game stretch off-campus certainly didn't help.
But upcoming home games against Georgetown and San Diego State (the Jayhawks will also face New Mexico in Kansas City on Saturday) remain on KU's nonconference slate. Those tests could alleviate or compound the problems.
"We're the only school in America that doesn't play any home games for a month in a BCS conference. And that's my fault," Self said. "The schedule doesn't lend itself to getting some confidence by winning some games where you don't have to play great. I think a lot of it is confidence more than anything else."
After the Florida loss, Wiggins left the locker room and exchanged hugs and handshakes with some acquaintances. His team's sports information director, Chris Theisen, tried to hurry him toward a spot so he could respond to questions that lack answers right now. But he took his time before he settled into his position.
I asked him about his team's limited energy in the first half against the Gators. The Jayhawks dug holes in losses to Villanova and Colorado, too.
But Wiggins disagreed with my assessment.
"We did [come out with energy]," he said. "We came out and it was 10-3, I think. I don't know what happened. They just went on a run. The game of basketball is full of runs."
In that brief Q&A, Wiggins' disheartened demeanor conveyed the frustration of an 18-year-old who stars on a team that's aware of its potential, but still searching for a path to reach it.
As reporters surrounded him and the questions about his team's third loss in four games continued, maybe Wiggins wanted to yell and flee that dark hallway.
But he stood there and endured the pressure alone.