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KU’s Wiggins found second home in West Virginia

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, March 7, 2014, at 9:21 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, March 7, 2014, at 9:43 p.m.

Photos

No. 8 Kansas at West Virginia

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: WVU Colisem, Morgantown, W.Va.

Records: KU 23-7, 14-3 Big 12; WVU 16-14, 8-9

Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM

TV: ESPN

No. 8 Kansas at West Virginia

PKansasHt.Yr. PtsReb
FTarik Black6-9Sr.4.93.3
FPerry Ellis6-8So.13.26.4
GAndrew Wiggins6-8Fr.16.05.8
GWayne Selden6-5Fr.10.22.8
GNaadir Tharpe5-11Jr.9.2x-5.1
W.Virginia
FDevin Williams6-9Fr.8.37.1
FRemi Dibo6-7Jr.7.43.3
FNathan Adrian6-9Fr.12.12.9
GEron Harris6-3So.7.63.7
GJuwan Staten6-1Jr.18.2x-5.8

x-assists

Kansas (23-7, 14-3) : Freshman center Joel Embiid will miss his second straight game while resting a lower back strain. Coach Bill Self says the KU medical staff will re-evaluate Embiid on Sunday, and he could return for the Big 12 Tournament next week at the Sprint Center. But the goal is to have a healthy Embiid for the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks are 5-3 on the road in the Big 12 after losing two of their last three road games. But they are the only Big 12 team with a winning road record. Kansas leads the all-time series with West Virginia 3-0.

West Virginia (16-14, 8-9): West Virginia was once 6-4 in the Big 12 and looked like it could push for an NCAA bid with a strong finish. But after an 83-69 loss at Allen Fieldhouse on Feb. 8, the Mountaineers have lost five of seven. A victory on Saturday would give them a .500 record in the Big 12, but their overall resume may still relegate them to the NIT. Staten gave the Jayhawks problems in the first game.

RPIs as of Friday: KU 2, WVU 88

— The teenage basketball prodigy from Canada had been in West Virginia for just a few months when his host father came home with an idea.

Andrew Wiggins was 16, quiet-natured and shy, content to spend his days playing video games on the Thomas family Xbox. He gorged on microwaved Eggo waffles, and left shoes piled messily in his room. He was always smiling, always unfailingly polite, but the kid just didn’t say much. Andrew just wasn’t one to open himself up to people he had just met.

For two years, Scott and Lesley Thomas had been opening up their home to the blue-chip recruits at Huntington Prep, a powerhouse that attracts kids from all over the world. The Thomases had two young sons at home — Luke, 12, and Clayton, 9 — and they loved exposing their boys to new cultures. So in the fall of 2011, after Wiggins had joined Huntington and moved into the Thomas house, Scott gathered his family in the kitchen and explained the night’s entertainment.

“Andrew,” Scott remembers saying, “Our kids need to learn the Canadian national anthem.”

For a few minutes, Wiggins was apprehensive. But slowly, he embraced the challenge, turning Canadian Idol in the Thomas family kitchen.

“Oh Canada,” Wiggins began, each word a little louder, “our home and native land …

“True patriot love in all thy sons command.”

For the next two years, Scott says, it would become a family tradition. Every few months, the Thomases would embrace in a group hug around the kitchen table and Wiggins would lead the anthem.

“He doesn’t want to stand out or anything when it comes to speaking,” Scott Thomas says now, nearly a year after Wiggins left Huntington. “But he got right in there when it comes to singing.”

This is the Wiggins not everyone can see, but it’s the one his second family knows best. Before he was a freshman at Kansas, leading the Jayhawks to a 10th straight Big 12 championship — before he left a one-and-done mark inside Allen Fieldhouse — Andrew Wiggins was still finding his voice in a rural outpost in a corner of West Virginia.

After spending his first two high school seasons in the Toronto area, Wiggins moved to Huntington to find better competition. He would build relationships and earn the title of top amateur player in America. But it was a connection he forged with his host family that remains among the strongest ties to those two years of his life.

On Saturday, Wiggins will return to the state of West Virginia as No. 8 Kansas finishes its regular season at WVU Coliseum in Morgantown. It’s not quite a second homecoming for Wiggins — Huntington and Morgantown are nearly three hours apart, dots on opposite sides of the state. But three days after the Thomas family made the drive to Lawrence to watch him play his final game at Allen Fieldhouse, Lesley Thomas and one of her boys will trek to Morgantown for his last regular-season game.

With a strong performance, Wiggins could juice up his credentials as the prospective Big 12 player of the year.

“It’s almost a logical no-brainer,” Kansas coach Bill Self says.

But for the Thomas family, during those two years in Huntington, the basketball was always secondary. All around Wiggins, the world was closing in. Scott and Lesley say they wanted to create a support system for a kid hundreds of miles from his parents in Toronto.

“He could just come here and be a kid,” says Scott Thomas, who works as an entrepreneur and business owner in the Huntington area. “He didn’t have to worry about the pressures … at the heart of it, it was just a 17-year-old kid that just wanted do stuff like other 17-year-old kids.”

On some nights, that meant going to the local bowling alley. Wiggins would fling the ball down the lane as fast as he could, and Luke and Clayton would write down the speeds that flashed on the screen above the lane.

“He would throw it like 40 miles per hour,” Lesley says.

On other nights, that meant raiding the kitchen and chowing down on some unspeakably unhealthy meals. During his first months in the house, Lesley says, Wiggins fell hard for Eggo waffles. So for three meals a day, he would take five frozen waffles out of the box, put them in the microwave, and eat them like tacos with syrup oozing off the sides.

Lesley kept the waffles on the grocery list, but Scott wanted to make sure Wiggins was eating healthier. So they started adding protein shakes to the diet. Always vanilla.

“It seemed like that last year here, Andrew grew up a lot,” Scott says. “He ate better … he wanted to do better. He knew he was about to go to college.”

As the first year bled into the second, Scott and Lesley started to realize that Wiggins wasn’t like all the other high school stars that played at Huntington Prep. Two years earlier, they had played host to Gorgui Dieng, an African center who would eventually help Louisville to an NCAA championship. But the attention around Wiggins was suffocating.

On the day Wiggins reclassified to the Class of 2014 — kick-starting a recruitment process that would end at Kansas — Scott turned on ESPN. All these reporters and talking heads were talking about the Canadian amateur who could be the best high school player since LeBron James. Later that day, Wiggins came home with a question.

“Can I have an extra five dollars,” he asked. “They’re collecting money at school for a sick girl.”

More than a year later, that’s the story Scott Thomas remembers most. For two years in Huntington, it was never about Andrew.

More than an hour before Kansas’ victory over Texas Tech on Wednesday, the Thomas family sat with Wiggins’ parents, Mitchell and Marita, and waited for him to appear on the floor at Allen Fieldhouse.

When Wiggins finally hit the floor, his eyes glanced up to his families — both of them. One second later, he was running toward the bleachers.

“Hey,” Andrew said. “How have you been?”

Reach Rustin Dodd at rdodd@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.

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