Minus Embiid, Wiggins steps up and shows he can carry Kansas
Marcus Smart finally agrees: Andrew Wiggins has proven himself -- borne out in Kansas' OT win over OK State. And if KU is a national-title threat minus Joel Embiid, Wiggins has to be the man.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Marcus Smart made sure he drew the boundaries. At least it sounded that way Thursday when the at-times troubled, talented and finally tired 2013 Big 12 player of the year plopped his body in a folding chair after a third meeting this season with Kansas.
It sounded a lot like Oklahoma State's guard was limiting the square mileage conquered by Kansas' great Andrew Wiggins this season to nothing more than the Great Plains.
"He proved he can play in this league," Smart said.
"... in this league ...?"
"He came here as a freshman and did what he was supposed to do," Smart added following Kansas' 77-70 overtime win over Oklahoma State on Thursday in the Big 12 Tournament. "He didn't get Big 12 player of the year [but] he's still ... one of the best players in the Big 12."
"... in the Big 12 ...
By now, Wiggins should be overcoming any doubt the way he overcame the Cowboys. With 7-footer Joel Embiid out with a stress fracture in his back, it's clear that if it's not Wiggins' team at this point, it's at least Wiggins' time.
He followed up Saturday's 41-point display at West Virginia with 30 Thursday against the Cowboys in a Big 12 quarterfinal. Much of the game he was matched up against Smart who -- you may remember -- had this to say about the raw freshman back in October.
"They are saying he is the best college player there is, and he has not even played a game yet," Smart told USA Today Sports regarding Wiggins. "Of course that hypes me up. It is all talk. He still has to put his shorts on one leg at a time like I do. It is all potential. I am not saying he can't do it. But he has not done it yet."
Now he's done it. Thirty-two games into that one-and-done freshman season, Wiggins is a different player. Kansas is a different team.
"With Embiid out, Wiggins is more aggressive, that's what that team needs," Smart said. "They rely on him a very good amount. He's been coming [through] for them. If he can stay consistent with it, he can be a great player."
" ... If he can stay consistent ...?"
Aren't we past that now? Should be. For portions of this season Wiggins could have been labeled a disappointment, an underachiever. His assertiveness was there, in varying doses. What he has always been able to do is defend. But they don't put you on magazine covers because you can play defense.
They put you there because the phrase "The Next LeBron" has been uttered. Don't blame the kid, blame the media. Blame yourselves for buying into the unmitigated hype
.Wiggins slowy has grown into an all around player. He broke the KU freshman scoring record, made all-Big 12 and was the conference's freshman of the year. He has scored 71 points in the past two games while averaging almost 21 over his past six.
Wiggins has to step up. Embiid is out, perhaps until the second weekend of the tournament. Kansas can't survive on the remaining inside game that would be deeper than most. It needs a playmaker.
"He's not a freshman no more, he's a sophomore," teammate Perry Ellis said. "He's maturing.
There's no way short of a season-ending injury that Wiggins will make it to his sophomore season. Meanwhile, among the big four freshmen, Wiggins isn't having the season of maybe Duke's Jabari Parker, but he is owning the moment. It's starting to dawn on him. One-and-done players are expected to advance their teams way past one and done in the NCAA tournament.
"I talked to my brother about it a lot," Wiggins said of his bro Nick, who played in a Final Four last season, and has gone undefeated this season at Wichita State.
"He just said, 'You wouldn't believe how amazing it is if you are not there to witness it.' "
We are all witnesses to Wiggins, even if Smart wants to limit his dominance to the Big 12. This isn't one of Bill Self's best teams, not even close. It turns the ball over too much and gets inconsistent guard play. That guard play included Wiggins for large stretches this season.
But the kid seems to be realizing the season is coalescing around him and a solid, Embiid-less inside game.
"We can play without him," Wiggins said. "We don't really mind what other people are saying how we're not going to be as good [without Embiid]. That's just more motivation for us.
"But when Jo-Jo [returns] we're going to be even better."
If this was the prove-it game for Kansas' hopes in the post, call it a no decision. The Jayhawks hung on more than dominated. Inside guys Perry Ellis and Tariq Black each finished with four fouls.
In one damaging second-half sequence Kansas' bigs committed five fouls in a 3:25 stretch. Ellis, Black and Jamari Traylor scored a combined four field goals in the final 10½ minutes of regulation and overtime.
But those three -- combining for 29 rebounds -- almost outrebounded the Cowboys (30 total) on their own. Kansas blew an 11-point second-half lead, then rallied from two down with 92 seconds left to force overtime.
"It can get personal at times," Ellis said. "As you know, they love to compete. We love to compete too."
KU and Oklahoma State were picked 1-2 at the beginning of the season, splitting the first two games. When the third game was over, Kansas came out on top in the season series by two points (222-220).
In the big picture, it doesn't mean much. Oklahoma State gets a week to rest before the NCAA Tournament. Kansas gets Iowa State in the Big 12 semis on Friday.
But, yes, it was personal. The Wiggins who graced those magazine covers when -- as Smart said -- it was all potential, has matured past something more than a talented prodigy.
You could see it in Smart's eyes when he guarded Wiggins in the crucial final minutes. You could feel it in the Sprint Center which witnessed perhaps the best day of Big Eight/Big 12 quarterfinals in the history of this conference tournament.
Of the eight teams in the quarterfinals, seven are a lock for the tournament. They were guided by five Final Four coaches. The four games basically resembled four Big Monday matchups (Iowa State-Kansas State, Kansa-Oklahoma State, Oklahoma-Baylor, Texas-West Virginia.)
"That's the matchup that they want to see," Cowboys guard Markel Brown said. "Marcus vs. Andrew Wiggins. They all got it tonight."
Well, not all. Who knows if Kansas can play without Embiid? Who knows if Smart is the most-hated player in the Big 12 judging by the pro-Kansas crowd? Smart didn't reprise his '13 player of the year season. Not even close. He slumped, ending his Big 12 tournament career with 14 points. He was suspended for those three games after the altercation with a fan at Texas Tech.
But Wiggins wasn't Big 12 player of the year either. The award went to a senior (imagine that: Iowa State's Melvin Ejim.
What we know somewhat for certain is that Wiggins won over an opponent Thursday and claimed some territory beyond the Great Plains.
"He earned my respect tonight," Smart said, settling deeper into that folding chair deep in the bowels of the Sprint Center. "You have to earn my respect. You have to take it. He earned it tonight."
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