LAWRENCE — He turns 19 on Sunday, and for most college students, that would mean a couple of Saturday night staples. A perfect little mix of revelry, maybe some economically-priced pizza, a reminder that you still have three more years on campus.
Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins isn’t like most college students, of course. Never has been, not since a couple of KU fans met him at Kansas City International Airport when he arrived from Canada last summer. It’s tough for Wiggins to be himself in Lawrence sometimes. Too much Rock Stalk Jayhawk.
So on his last day of being 18, Wiggins kept it casual — 21 points and six rebounds as No. 8 Kansas eviscerated No. 19 Texas 85-54 in a payback beating at Allen Fieldhouse.
“The last time we got embarrassed at their place,” Wiggins said. “We just wanted to take it to them.”
They did. This was domination, the kind of performance that could spook coaches across the country. By the final minutes, senior forward Tarik Black had posterized Texas center Cameron Ridley with a memorable one-handed jam, and the entire Kansas bench was exploding into joyous convulsions, like one of those old-school church revivals.
“Extreme,” freshman guard Frank Mason said.
It was that kind of night, when all the shots seem to fall and the walk-ons empty off the bench with a minute to go. It was the kind of night where freshman center Joel Embiid scores 13 points, snares seven rebounds and blocks six shots — and the Jayhawks avenge an 81-69 loss to Texas in Austin on Feb. 1. The kind of night where Kansas took a three-game lead in the Big 12 race with four games to play, putting a stranglehold on a title that already felt like an inevitability.
“That was our first goal to start off the year,” Mason said, “to win a 10th straight Big 12 championship.”
Just two days ago, Kansas coach Bill Self was in no mood to speculate on the Big 12 title race.
OK, maybe now it’s time to think about the future. Maybe now, it’s time to recalibrate expectations once again and think about what’s coming next. When the Jayhawks play their best, they look like they can play with anybody in the country. When they play defense like they did against Texas, holding the Longhorns to 34-percent shooting, they look like a machine hitting a groove.
“At the end,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said, “I think they can be the best team in the country.”
In the moments after the game, Barnes joked that the Topeka YMCA could have given KU a better game. Now, Self says, they must find a way to be more consistence.
“Sometimes I think we read too much into it when you play really well,” Self said. “ ‘They’re on a roll now.’ I think a roll means you’re going to do it over a period of time, and I think it still remains to be seen if we’re on a roll yet. I do think we’re playing better.”
The Jayhawks, who entered the night with a two-game lead in the Big 12 race, couldn’t clinch the conference title on Saturday. But this was still a statement. The Big 12 may be deeper than it ever, and a Kansas team dominated by freshmen looks poised to cruise to the title.
“In the past, even with experienced guys, we’ve lost games that you can lose,” Self said.
This team, save for trips to Manhattan and Austin, has found ways to win.
“I think that’s the difference,” Self said, “I think that’s why you’re up three games right now.”
Maybe the title comes on Monday night against Oklahoma, when Kansas (21-6, 12-2) can clinch. After that, it’s hard to find limits, especially with Wiggins and Embiid looking poised to take another step in the season’s final months.
A No. 1 seed? A long March run? On Saturday, the Jayhawks outscored Texas, the second-place team in the Big 12, 46-18 in the opening half. The Longhorns hit 6 of 29 from the field in the first 20 minutes, and Texas freshman Isaiah Taylor, who had 23 points in Texas’ victory over Kansas in Austin, was 1 for 14 from the field.
From there, it was basically a dunk contest. Or maybe it was a birthday party, a festive night for a young team still coming of age.
“I think when we play well,” Self said, “we can play with anybody.”