Spring recruits rejuvenate Kansas basketball

05/25/2013 6:17 PM

05/25/2013 6:18 PM

It was the first week of April, just days after another agonizing NCAA Tournament loss, and Kansas coach Bill Self was forced to attend the Final Four in Atlanta.

The wounds were still fresh. Self couldn’t bring himself to watch the tape of KU’s Sweet 16 collapse against Michigan — no need to watch Trey Burke rip out his heart again — and he always hated being at the Final Four without his own players.

This was the destination, the ultimate goal for every Kansas team. And if Self was being honest with himself, there was another reason this trip felt more hollow than usual. He had just watched four seniors play their last game, and freshman Ben McLemore would almost assuredly leave early for the NBA Draft.

If you asked Self about the Jayhawks’ prospects for next season, he would tell you how excited he was about his latest five-man recruiting class: A group of highly ranked players, but no guaranteed program-changers. The Jayhawks would be talented, and young, and good. But Self wasn’t sure if they’d be in “the game,” a nice way of saying that he wasn’t sure if the Jayhawks could be Final Four contenders with their current roster.

“We were incomplete,” Self says.

Nearly six weeks later, on a Wednesday in May, Self picks up the phone in south Florida. It’s a beach day in Miami, and Self has plans to go to the Heat playoff game that night with his son, Tyler. Days earlier, Self had watched his daughter, Lauren, graduate from KU. And this was a moment to recharge the batteries after a spring that couldn’t have gone much better.

In a span of six days in May, the Jayhawks added No. 1 overall recruit Andrew Wiggins and Memphis transfer Tarik Black. With the addition of Wiggins, a 6-foot-7 swingman, and Black, a 6-foot-9 banger, the Jayhawks moved from a fringe top-20 squad to a Final Four contender.

But even more than the immediate impact, the addition of Wiggins could have long-term ramifications for a program that has won nine straight Big 12 titles. But to understand the power of Wiggins, you first have to learn how Self and Kansas emerged even stronger after a thudding loss in March.

“I’m not predicting greatness or anything like that,” Self says. “But I think we put ourselves in a position, where if things fall right, we can be in the game… again.”

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Kurtis Townsend was already on the road in West Virginia when his phone started buzzing. It was last October, and Townsend, a Kansas assistant, was on his way to visit a senior guard named Xavier Rathan-Mayes at Huntington Prep in West Virginia.

But on this day, Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford was calling with a nice surprise.

Andrew Wiggins, the best junior basketball player in America, was re-classifying as a senior at Huntington Prep.

“Would you guys have a scholarship for Andrew next season?” Fulford asked.

A 6-foot-7 native of Thornhill, Ontario, Wiggins had the pedigree of a world-class athlete. NBA guard for a father. Olympic sprinter for a mother. And on the day he decided to join the Class of 2013, Townsend was on campus to remind Wiggins that Kansas could be an option.

“I just happened to be there that day,” Townsend says.

Seven months later, after Wiggins surprised college basketball by choosing Kansas on May 14, Townsend still recalls that day. In the past six years, Kansas has won one NCAA title and earned four No. 1 seeds, but Self and his staff have done it largely on the backs of solid recruits that came to Kansas and transformed into stars.

During the same period, Kansas produced just two one-and-done players (Xavier Henry and Josh Selby) and neither has found a comfortable role in the NBA. The perception, Townsend says, was that superstar recruits couldn’t flourish in the Kansas system.

“I think Andrew was good for us,” Townsend says, “because there’s been people out there saying, “Well, Kansas is always good, but they don’t get the one-and-dones. They don’t get the superstar.” Because the ones that we’ve had, Xavier, Josh Selby, they haven’t had stellar (NBA) careers.

“I think Andrew kind of answered that. We can take a kid who is that level of player, and plug him in.”

In fact, Wiggins started paying dividends just hours after he signed with Kansas. On the same day, Townsend went to the airport to pick up Black, a 6-foot-9 forward who was hoping to graduate from Memphis early and play his final season at a basketball blue-blood.

By the time Black arrived on campus, the basketball office was still buzzing about Wiggins. Six days later, Black signed on for a year at Kansas.

Self believes Black, who averaged 8.1 points for Memphis last season, can be a vital piece on a young team.

“This kid has a man’s body,” Self said. “And he’s played in big-boy games. And he scored basically 1,000 points at Memphis in three years.

“… This kid has a chance to be a huge impact for us, and I’m looking at him as a guy that will get points and rebounds.”

Now comes the next step. Seven of the Jayhawks’ eight newcomers are expected on campus the first week of June, with Wiggins the only exception. Self plans to sort through Wiggins’ summer schedule this week. It could include a spot on the Canadian team at the U-19 World Championships, which start June 27 in Prague. But Self is being cautious, open to whatever Wiggins wants to do. He points out that Wiggins has spent the last two years away from home at Huntington. Some time back home, he says, might be beneficial.

“When he gets in here, he’s gonna have an abundance of expectations and pressure on him, which will put pressure on himself to work so hard. But I don’t want to make it where it’s an unbelievably long year, either.

“He’s gotta be fresh, so we just gotta make sure we handle this right.”

Rejuvenated from the spring, Self is already thinking about the future. That includes the continued development of sophomore forward Perry Ellis, and the continued maturity of junior guard Naadir Tharpe. And Self says the Wiggins’ signing has motivated his staff to hit another “home run” in the 2014 recruiting class.

From the aftermath of a NCAA Tournament gut-punch, and a mass exodus of talent, Self and Kansas are in the game again.

“The spring couldn’t have gone any better,” Self says. “Andrew comes with such publicity. It just seems like it gave our program a momentum boost.”

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