January 18th and March 1st.
Go ahead and circle those dates on your calendars right now, and, if you cannot find a way to get into Phog Allen Fieldhouse or Gallagher-Iba Arena, start prepping the popcorn and the nachos right now.
Those dates are the two regular season games to be played between Kansas and Oklahoma State, two top ten teams and, by far, the two favorites to compete for the Big 12 title this season.
There is already plenty of hype surrounding the season-long battle that will take place between those two programs. Let’s ignore, for a second, the fact that these are two teams that will be in and around the top ten all season long, that they will be fighting for a conference title and will enter March with a shot to get to the Final Four. That, all by itself, is a reason to tune into the games.
Now toss in the fact that Oklahoma State was thought to be the favorite to end the Jayhawk’s run of nine straight league titles when Marcus Smart and Markel Brown decided to return to school, and the rivalry gets even more spicier. Why? Because Andrew Wiggins’ decision to attend Kansas means that a bunch of freshmen are all of a sudden sitting atop the Pokes in just about every preseason projection.
You better believe that ticked off a competitor like Marcus Smart, especially when one of those freshman enters the game with more hype than Smart got for returning after an all-american season and a chance to train with the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team during the summer. From USA Today’s Eric Prisbell:
“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. “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.”
At 6-foot-4, Smart wants nothing more than an opportunity to guard the sinewy 6-8 Wiggins.
“Definitely,” Smart says. “I am not going to back down from any challenge. Like I said, you are going to have to prove to me. I am a fighter; I will keep fighting and will never give up.”
“I want to earn it, I don’t want anything given to me,” Smart says. “It has not been [given] at all. I want to work for what I have. If feel if you work for what you have instead of it being just given to you, people respect you a lot more because you understand what it takes, you’ve been there and done it. No one can just say it was easy because you took it. You didn’t just get it. You took it. So all the power and credit to him [Wiggins]. Congratulations for the Sports Illustrated, all the hype, congratulations to him. But that’s definitely a lot of pressure on him.”
Yeah, these quotes are going to be everywhere by the end of the day.
And it will only serve to ratchet up the intensity of what could end up being the two most anticipated conference games of the season.
But you know what? I don’t think Smart said anything wrong here. Of course he’s going to be ticked off that a freshman is coming in an stealing all the spotlight that he should be getting. Of course he’s going to think that he’s just as good, if not better than Wiggins. Of course he’s going to want the chance to get out on the court and prove it by beating the Jayhawks and by locking up Wiggins himself.
In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that I love that Smart came out and said this. He didn’t diss Wiggins, and was actually quite respectful of his talents. Smart’s smart. He knows how good Wiggins is. But he’s a competitor, one of the best in basketball at any level, and he’s not going to give some freshman an inch just because the kid could end up being a star one day down the road.
Seeing these two go head-to-head is one of the things that I am most excited about this season.
Anyone else hoping that they lock horns in the Big 12 tournament final?