KU’s Wiggins steps onto Big 12 center stage at media day

10/22/2013 10:18 AM

02/04/2014 7:11 AM

The chair was empty, its prodigious owner a few minutes late, but the questions kept coming for Andrew Wiggins.

It was early on Tuesday afternoon at the Sprint Center, the final hour of Big 12 basketball media day, and a reporter had wedged into a pack surrounding Kansas players Tarik Black, Naadir Tharpe and Perry Ellis. A fourth chair, reserved for Wiggins, KU’s much-heralded freshman, remained empty.

“Andrew,” the reporter said, looking toward Black, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Memphis. “ what’s the buzz like in Lawrence with students?”

As a little confusion reigned, Tharpe stepped in and dutifully answered the question. But the reporter persisted:

“Andrew, though,” he said, “have you felt it from the students.”

Finally, Black couldn’t contain his laughter.

“Wait, who’s Andrew?” Tharpe said.

So let the record show, as the swelling hype around Wiggins arrived in Kansas City on Tuesday morning, there are still those that are acclimating themselves to the Jayhawks’ latest phenom.

Not that Wiggins would mind. An hour earlier, Wiggins had walked onto the floor at the Sprint Center, looking very much like a 18-year-old who listens to rapper Drake and calls playing the video game “Call of Duty” his favorite non-basketball pastime. He wore an oversized orange shirt, and a black tie that hung about six inches too short — like a kid who had dressed for church in five minutes.

The difference being that, an hour or so later, a reporter would actually ask Wiggins if he’d ever met Drake, the Canadian rap equivalent to Wiggins’ basketball talent.

“Yeah,” Wiggins said, politely. “I’ve met him.”

The mania surrounding Wiggins and a rebuilt KU program wasn’t always pretty — like when another reporter earnestly asked Kansas coach Bill Self if Wilt Chamberlain had reached out to give Wiggins guidance.

But it also meant that college basketball is near.

“The first couple weeks of practice were hard for all the freshmen,” Wiggins said. “But now everything is coming easier, more fluent. The potential is there to be the best team.”

In seven days, the Jayhawks begin their exhibition schedule against Pittsburg State, formally beginning their road to a 10th straight Big 12 regular-season title. Wiggins, of course, is not much for history. Before he arrived at Kansas, he had little idea that Chamberlain once led KU to an NCAA title game in Kansas City in 1957, or that Danny Manning accomplished the same feat 31 years later. But he has since learned plenty about the Jayhawks’ Big 12 reign. Enough to know he wants to keep it going.

“We can be great,” Wiggins said. “The best team in the country.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Wiggins had shared a moment with Oklahoma State sophomore guard Marcus Smart, the reigning Big 12 player of the year and perhaps KU’s biggest impediment to another conference crown. It was last season when Smart left Allen Fieldhouse a winner, doing backflips after the Cowboys pulled off an 85-80 stunner over then No. 2 Kansas in early February. The Jayhawks would return the favor at Oklahoma State on their way to another league title. But when Smart, a potential top-five pick, said no to the NBA Draft, the Cowboys appeared the likely choice to end the Jayhawks’ streak.

That was, of course, until Wiggins signed with Kansas in May — a fact that hasn’t been lost on Smart.

“He puts his shorts on one day at a time like me,” Smart said of Wiggins. “And if he’s the best player like people say then if that’s the case, in order for me to be the best, I gotta play the best and I have to beat the best, right?

“If he’s the best player, fans will get their money’s worth when we play Kansas.”

For all the attention on Wiggins, Self has devised a pretty simple scheme to deal with the expectations: Embrace them.

“For him to be in the arena that he so wants to be in, you gotta be able to handle a lot of different things,” Self said. “And I do think there’s a carry-over to the court, based on how you handle the stresses.”

For all his rapturous potential, Wiggins and his fellow freshmen have still not scored a basket or played a game. And Self makes that clear when he says last year’s team would “whip this year’s team’s butt right now.”

Kansas is going to be good, Self says, but Wiggins simply can’t be expected to LeBron James or Kevin Durant. For now, Self just wants him to be Andrew.

“He’s not LeBron,” Self says. “He’s not Durant. He’s not Wilt. He’s Andrew. And Andrew will impact our college game and our program in a huge, huge, huge way.”

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