LAWRENCE — The summer theme of Big 12 basketball — if there is such a thing — appears to have come to rest between two interlocking storylines: The arrival of Kansas super-freshman Andrew Wiggins. The return of Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart. And how the presence of both All-American candidates could decide the Big 12 title race in 2014.
Yes, it’s a little early for polls, predictions or projections. But with Kansas sitting on nine straight Big 12 titles and Oklahoma State returning a nucleus of Smart, athletic senior Markel Brown and mercurial swingman LeBryan Nash, the Big 12 could be in for one of its most star-powered title races in years.
“I think you would put Oklahoma State and Kansas up there,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said on Tuesday, speaking during the Big 12 coaches’ summer teleconference. “I don’t know what order necessarily, but I think those two teams belong at the top.”
Early indications from the league’s coaches suggested a slight lean toward Kansas. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said he expects the Jayhawks to be a Final Four threat. And let’s be honest, based on past history, it’s been a mistake to bet against Kansas in the Big 12 race.
“You can’t count out Kansas,” Barnes said.
It was just a year ago that Kansas entered the year as the Big 12 favorite after losing Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor to the NBA Draft. Kansas, of course, was loaded with seniors. But the league also appeared to lack a worthy challenger. Kansas State would respond to take a share of the regular-season. But the perception was set early, during the league’s mediocre showing in the non-conference season: The Big 12 was down last season.
Perception can be a funny thing, though. Oklahoma State was a trendy title pick when Marcus Smart stunned college basketball and stayed in school for his sophomore. Well, that lasted until Wiggins announced that he was headed to Lawrence.
“I think Kansas,” Hoiberg said, “… not only with Wiggins -- who is a special special player -- but you look at the other guys they’re bringing in and the way some of those other players finished the season… I think they’re gonna be a top-five team at the beginning of the year.”
Barnes can remember first seeing Wiggins when he was ninth grader from the Toronto area. And West Virginia coach Bob Huggins got a decent look at Wiggins when he spent his last two high school years across the state in Huntington, W.V.
“Believe the hype,” Barnes said, “He’s a special player.”
“He brings so much athleticism to any place he plays,” Huggins says. “He is a world-class athlete.”
Huggins, though, also lavished praised on Smart, who he likened to Jason Kidd at the college level for his ability to control a game. Smart averaged 15.8 points and 5.8 rebounds while taking home Big 12 player of the year honors in his freshman season. And he would have likely been a top-five pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft.
Then again, so would Wiggins.
Kansas coach Bill Self has acknowledged that Wiggins’ presence could bring an unprecedented level of attention — and scrutiny — to his young squad. But he also has his own expectations for Wiggins’ potential impact.
“I think his ceiling is high,” Self said on Tuesday. “I would hope he’s as talented as any player in the country, because from a raw athletic-ability standpoint, he can do some things that I’ve never had a player be able to do physically.
“But the bottom line is, he’s still just 18 years old. He’s still just gonna be a freshman. He’s gonna go through ups and downs just like everybody else. But hopefully, by midseason, he’s totally comfortable and he’s able to really just play.”
In Self’s mind, just playing means becoming a reactor and not a thinker. Sometimes, though, it takes time to become the former. And even Wiggins may need a little time.
“I hope that happens for all our guys,” Self said, “but especially (Wiggins), because his ceiling is so high and he can impact our team so much.”
McLemore signs with agent — Former Kansas guard Ben McLemore has signed with newly-certified NBA agent Rodney Blackstock, the same man who allegedly paid one of McLemore’s former AAU coaches $10,000 during the KU basketball season.
McLemore’s selection of Blackstock, which was reported Tuesday by Liz Mullen of the Sports Business Journal, is sure to stir up some confusion as the former KU star prepares to sit in the green room during Thursday night’s NBA Draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Multiple previous reports had linked McLemore with Rivals Sports Group, the same firm that represents former Kansas players Marcus and Markieff Morris.
Blackstock, the founder of a sports mentoring organization in Greensboro, N.C., was not a certified agent when he allegedly gave Darius Cobb — McLemore’s former AAU coach in St. Louis — two cash payments of $5,000, along with all-expense paid trips to Los Angeles to gain influence in McLemore’s inner circle.
But Blackstock is now a certified agent, according to the NBA Players Association. And he has been acting as McLemore’s adviser during the pre-draft process.
"The things (Cobb) said were a lie," McLemore told reporters last month at pre-draft workouts, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. "I think it was just a personal attack on Rodney. ... Rodney has been great. Since I met him, we have got that bond and communicating very well. That is why I chose him to help me with this process."
The NCAA, meanwhile, has also been in communication with the University of North Carolina about Blackstock, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. Blackstock has reportedly had a long-term relationship with North Carolina guard P.J. Hairston.
KU reaches deal with ESPN online — It’s not quite the Longhorn Network, but Kansas’ athletic department rolled out a seven-year agreement with ESPN on Tuesday, firming up a few details of its third-tier television rights.
The deal will allow a minimum of 70 live KU events to be available to a national audience on ESPN3, ESPN’s online platform, which is available in 85 million homes nationwide to fans that receive their Internet or video subscription from an affiliated provider.
The announcement comes on the heels of Kansas’ unveiling of a long-term partnership with Time Warner Cable Sports, which will carry 50 Kansas contests on Metro Sports in Kansas City.
ESPN3 will carry the 50 Time Warner broadcasts to a national audience through its digital platform. In addition, ESPN3 will have the exclusive rights to 20 additional broadcasts.
KU associate athletic director Jim Marchiony said the school was still working on the details for markets outside of Kansas City, including Wichita. KU officials previously said all KU basketball games would be available state-wide.
KU joins Texas as the only Big 12 school with a third-tier rights agreement with ESPN.