All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.
In The Matrix, Neo might have been The One, but he needed Morpheus, Trinity and Tank to show him the way and watch his back while he learned Kung Fu.
Andrew Wiggins will have that same luxury at Kansas this year. Bill Self will make sure his star takes the crimson and blue pill so he can walk the fine line between artistry and hard work. Wiggins’ teammates will help carry the load. It’s the only way the Jayhawks can lock down yet another Big 12 title, and possibly another trip to the Final Four.
The team concept is vital. It’s a lesson other Big 12 teams have learned the hard way in recent seasons. Remember Michael Beasley at K-State? His single season was a marvel of individual effort, but Kansas won the 2008 league (and national) title in spite of Beasley’s 28 double-doubles. One year prior, Kevin Durant was transcendent at Texas, winning national player of the year honors, but even the Durantula couldn’t wrest the Big 12 trophy from Bill Self’s hands all by his lonesome.
So what’s to keep the same fate from befalling Andrew Wiggins? The Canadian wunderkind has the inside track on the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick and the Naismith Award, and most pundits favor him to be one of the game’s all-time greats over the next two decades. That’s a lot of expectation on one guy.
Here’s the thing – Kansas doesn’t do the one man show. Take a look at the talent arrayed around Wiggins, and you’ll see the makings of a national title contender, though maybe not one as flashy as the one John Calipari has built at Kentucky. Junior Naadir Tharpe will become the primary ballhandler, and he’ll share the backcourt with Wayne Selden, a freshman who would be the team’s most notable player if not for a certain Canadian.
In the frontcourt, Self has another newbie in Joel Embiid, an experienced transfer in Memphis’ Tarik Black, and the hard-won wisdom of sophomore Perry Ellis, who learned patience in his own unpredictable freshman campaign.
“I had a lot of ups and downs,” Ellis told NBCSports.com via phone. “I realized I still had a lot to learn about the game. Just by becoming more mentally tough and learning little aspects of the game that coach was teaching.”
Bill Self has never asked one player to carry his squad. His dalliances with one-and-done talent in the past have driven home the point: no one man, no matter how talented, can do the whole job. Xavier Henry needed his teammates to pick up the slack while he learned how to be aggressive and hit the mid-range jumper. Josh Selby had to sit out nine games of his freshman season, and never really became a star as he was expected to. Ben McLemore was Self’s biggest success to date, but last season was hardly a solo performance by the eventual lottery pick.
Wiggins is a different sort of superstar – he can, and likely will, take over games on his own – but he’ll have the support system he needs if things don’t go as planned. Ellis, a blue-chip recruit in his own right, knows that those days will come. He’ll have advice for Wiggins, Selden and especially freshman big man Embiid when things get tough.
“He’ll get down sometimes,” Ellis said. “I went through that too my freshman year. I can relate to him on that. Jeff (Withey) and them would take me under their wing when I wasn’t doing well or got down on myself. That’s what I’m really trying to help them with. When things aren’t going well, just keep competing.”
Wiggins is hard to nail down. He’s the sort of player who can thrive anywhere on the court. He’ll explode eyeballs if his teammates can do the little things that create space for a superstar – setting picks, knocking down zone-busting shots, sealing off defenders in the paint – and that’s the kind of thing Bill Self teams excel at. Ellis pointed out that some of the bench players who will see their time dwindle as the stars take the court will have vital roles to play.
“Andrew White and Brannen Green are good shooters. In practice, we’ve been meshing real well, with guys knocking in shots, or I can get it in the post and kick it back out. I think that will be great for us.”
If you look at Kansas teams of the past, there’s always talent. That’s a given. But Bill Self’s Final Four teams, including his national title winners of 2008, haven’t yet produced a bona fide NBA superstar. With a consensus stud on the roster this season, it’ll be up to the head coach to make sure his supporting cast is never standing and watching as Wiggins defies gravity. Ellis, who struggled to learn his role as McLemore lit up the scoreboard, knows that hard work pays off, even if you’re not the star every night.
“The game started really slowing down for me,” Ellis said. “I realized that my freshman season. It’s a long season but I turned it around at the end.”
Self’s troops, though young, should be primed to hear that wisdom. Even the younger players on the team ooze maturity. Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News – the polar opposite of an attention-hungry internet troll – lobbed a stunning compliment at one of the other freshmen earlier this season.
Wayne Selden does not relent. I’ll say this as directly as possible: Selden is the hardest-practicing freshman I’ve encountered in more than a quarter-century on the college basketball beat.
Wiggins’s athleticism will permit him to do some things college opponents can’t prevent. But those same young men simply won’t want to get in Selden’s way.
Kansas will certainly never turn up its nose at the uber-talented. But a decade’s worth of league titles won over an opponent’s superstar or two ought to prove that Bill Self’s Jayhawks will always win with more than one man, even when that man is the amazing Andrew Wiggins.