Here is Kansas basketball in two sentences: On Saturday afternoon, KU’s freshman mega-talent racked up more points than any Jayhawk in the last 23 years.
And No. 8 KU still lost, falling flat early in a 92-86 loss to West Virginia on the final day of the Big 12 season.
So in the minutes after another setback — after an opposing crowd had rushed the floor for the fifth time this season — KU freshman Andrew Wiggins moved through a hallway inside WVU Coliseum, his spidery hands rubbing at his hips. He scored 41 points on 18 shots, the sort of efficiency dream that came packaged with a full stat line. He nearly led Kansas back from 25 points down in the final 16 minutes.
“There’s nobody in America that will have a better game than what Andrew had,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
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But as Wiggins rubbed at his shorts, he stayed mostly stoic. No smiles. No scowls. Just Andrew. Who could really process this? Wiggins drops 41, Kansas loses?
“It’s a good thing, but we lost,” Wiggins said. “I’d rather score five points and win than 40 and lose. It’s not really something really that great. We lost.”
So now the regular season is over, and how you feel about Kansas (23-8, 14-4), probably depends on how you feel about the Jayhawks’ chances to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament in the coming weeks.
In a Big 12 sense, this game was meaningless. But that doesn’t mean it was without meaning.
For brevity’s sake, Kansas lost on Saturday because junior guard Naadir Tharpe didn’t play like the leader that Self demands he be. Tharpe went scoreless while being benched for more than half the game. And he put no pressure on West Virginia guard Juwan Staten, who controlled the game with 24 points and nine assists.
“I need to do better to help the guys,” Tharpe said.
Kansas lost because freshman center Joel Embiid was back home in Lawrence, resting his lower back strain. The Jayhawks outrebounded 26 of 30 opponents before Saturday, and West Virginia owned a 37-31 advantage on the glass.
The Jayhawks lost because — as a whole — they slept through the opening 24 minutes, falling behind 64-39 with more than 16 minutes to play. By that moment, Self was already out of timeouts and the Jayhawks were being run out of Morgantown.
“We’ve gone through stretches this year where we haven’t guarded well,” Self said. “But I think that’s probably as poor as we’ve been.”
The Jayhawks, of course, arrived in West Virginia with little to play for. They wrapped up their 10th straight Big 12 regular-season championship seven days earlier. They could burnish their credentials for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but this KU team will ultimately be judged by what happens in the postseason — not in Morgantown. Still, Self wasn’t about to entertain that as an excuse.
“I think that’s kind of a bogus statement, too,” Self said.
The Jayhawks mounted a furious comeback, cutting the lead to 85-80 with more than a minute left. But the hole was too deep. The Mountaineers’ top three scorers — Staten, Devin Williams and Eron Harris — were just too much.
“Their big three had 74 points on us,” Self said. “And our big one had 41.”
Wiggins, who fouled out in the final minute, finished with 24 of his 41 points coming in the second half, hitting 12 of 18 from the field and 15 of 19 from the free-throw line. It was the most points by a Kansas player since Terry Brown scored 42 against North Carolina State in 1991.
For Wiggins, this was a quasi-homecoming. He finished high school in Huntington, W.Va., a three-hour drive across the state. His host mother, Lesley Thomas, was here Saturday. And this was, Self would say, Wiggins’ most complete game as a college player.
“I just tried to play very active,” Wiggins said. “Because we were down the whole game, so I knew we needed stops to get back.”
So if there’s a silver lining for Self and Kansas, perhaps Wiggins can take another step toward his ceiling as the NCAA Tournament approaches. But the Jayhawks, of course, have more concerning problems. They need a physically healthy Embiid (his status will be re-evaluated Sunday), and they need a mentally healthy Tharpe.
“I thought he got off to a rough start, and he needs to do some things to help lead us a little bit when things aren’t going well,” Self said of his point guard. “We just tried to play the most competitive guys there late.”
One year ago, Kansas concluded its regular season by laying an egg in a blowout loss at Baylor. The Bears were a NCAA bubble team, and eventually won the NIT. This was a familiar scene, so it’s worth remembering. Last year’s KU team would still claim a No. 1 seed after winning the Big 12 Tournament. Perhaps the same can happen this year.
But some things will need to change. Self referenced a speech that San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh gave his team earlier in the week, when Harbaugh visited a shootaround.
“Energy always finds the ball,” Harbaugh told the KU players.
“When you really think about it,” Self added. “It’s true.”