Finally, the games begin.
It’s been a long run since that sad Friday night in Dallas last March when Elijah missed, Trey hit, and Michigan knocked off the #1 seeded Jayhawks out of the NCAA tournament in overtime. Given how last season ended, this has been a surprisingly un-angsty off-season. Well, there was angst plenty of angst until May, but then for some reason a lot of that went away.
But after the Andrew Wiggins announcement, the celebration, the anticipation, the heaps of hype, KU finally tips things off tonight.
So what to make of, likely, the most talented team but least experienced team of the Bill Self era?
Well, first let’s acknowledge this year begins a whole new era of Kansas basketball. I’m not just talking about Wiggins’ time on campus. I’m talking about Self going all-in with chasing the top recruits and the Jayhawks beginning to look more like Kentucky, where new crops of freshmen show up each fall to be replaced by another group of kids straight out of high school the next year.
To be honest, I’m torn. I don’t think Self will ever go full Calipari. I think he will always do his best to balance the roster and also recruit guys who are talented and can be All-Conference caliber players, but who will spend more than one or two years on campus. Perry Ellis, for example. I love having Wiggins, Wayne Selden, and Joel Embiid on this year’s team. But it bums me out they’ll each likely be in Lawrence one season. Some of the fun of recruiting is imagining how multiple classes will mesh over time. And much of the fun of being a fan of a college team is watching guys come in talented but raw and turn themselves into complete players over three or four years. Andrew Wiggins won’t play with whichever of the stud big men, and possibly point guards, Self signs for next year. He’ll be catching lobs in Boston or Salt Lake or Philly.
Anyway, enough of that. Let’s talk about the team.
Yes, Wiggins will not live up to all the hype he’s received. That was always unlikely and as the hype has reached ridiculous levels, I think it’s become impossible. I would wager he won’t even be the best freshman, statistically, in the country. I think many people who only pay attention to college basketball forget he’s a ridiculous prospect because of the player he will be, in three or four years. He has crazy athletic ability and a terrific fundamental core. But he’s also a slender 6’8’’ kid. He won’t overpower people the way Michael Beasley did. He isn’t a good enough shooter (yet), nor big enough, to do what Kevin Durant did his one year at Texas. Nor does he seem to have that assassin element to his personality that will lend itself to averaging 25 a game. And KU doesn’t need him to score 25 every night. His stats will be modest, he will have games where you wonder what the fuss is about. But he’s still going to be really freaking good, and he’ll get better every game, every week, and look like a completely different dude in January and February than he is now.
That said, I’m sure, at some point, there will be a slew of “What’s Wrong With Wiggins?” columns and blog posts if KU struggles early and he’s only averaging 11 or 12 points per game. In the one-and-done era, there’s no time for patience.
The same goes for the other two super-frosh, Selden and Embiid. They’ll have rough patches, Embiid especially. But there will also be moments where they look like men among boys.
Perry Ellis is going to be really good. Maybe the best player on the team. He’s done what so many guys his size have done during the Self era: struggled through their freshmen years then come back stronger, more confident, and much better as sophomores. He looks like a different dude this year. When defenses collapse on Wiggins, he’ll be the beneficiary. He will quietly get work done and be good for 16 and 6 just about every night.
The one failing of Bill Self’s recruiting in recent years has been at point guard. He’s finished second or third for just about every one of his top targets since Sherron Collins.1 Thus, point guard seems like the weak spot in this year’s lineup. But I’ve liked what Naadir Tharpe and Frank Mason have shown in the exhibition games. Yes, D2 opponents. But they’ve both pushed the ball, kicked off the offense, made smart plays, and not tried to do too much. That’s all KU needs from the 1 spot this year: smart, efficient play. Plus, Selden and Wiggins are perfectly capable of bringing the ball up at times. By February they’ll be adept enough to run the point for extended periods if needed.
I think Andrew White III and Brannen Greene will both see limited, but important minutes. Wiggins, Selden, and the points can all shoot it, but these two guys have size, athleticism, and gorgeous strokes. If they can get on the court, they’re going to get lots of open looks when defenses collapse on Wiggins and Selden slashing. I love White’s attitude and what he did to his body and game over the off-season. I hope Greene follows his lead.
This team is big, fast, can jump, and has ridiculous upside. Will that be enough over the Big 12 season to extend the title streak and then make a long run in March? I still think Oklahoma State is the Big 12 favorite, simply because they’ve been through the battles already. KU matches up well with the Cowboys, and I expect those two games to be amazing battles. But as much as things always seem to work out in KU’s favor in the Big 12 season, whether it’s another contender not being able to handle the road or losing a fluke game somewhere down the stretch, I think this is the year KU loses a dumb game or two while OSU takes care of business. I don’t think Marcus Smart lets OSU lose too many games this year.
As for March, who knows. It all depends on match ups and locations and who is hot and how the chemistry of each team is. Two years ago Kentucky blew up the idea that a team dominated by freshmen couldn’t go deep into the tournament and win a title. Then last year’s Kentucky team lost in the first round of the NIT.
KU has massive amounts of potential. The question is do they have enough time to put it all together. I hope so. And unlike recent seasons, when I’ve been fine missing a game here and there, or even actively avoided games if my stress level was too high, I’m going to watch as many minutes as I can this year. The nights it all clicks, it’s going to be pretty spectacular.
I think you know what’s next.
Rock Chalk, Bitches
- Tyshawn Taylor was committed to Marquette and only took a look at KU after Tom Crean left for Indiana. Elijah Johnson was recruited as a two-guard. Naadir Tharpe and Frank Mason were both back up plans after preferred options signed elsewhere. ↩