Towering Toward the Blue

It wasn’t the stampede through the doors like at Late Night in the Phog, which was comparable to the Apple Store on a Black Friday, but Kansas basketball fans were steadily pouring into Allen Fieldhouse in mid-October for a 9:45 a.m. open practice.

Because thousands were barred from seeing the Jayhawks when the building hit its usual capacity of 16,300 at Late Night, the annual skits-and-scrimmage revue that kicks off every season of KU hoops, the Saturday morning practice was another way for fans to get a glimpse of the team before the games count.

Andrew Wiggins

An estimated 10,000 people watched Kansas play in a trio of 10-minute scrimmages. That’s 10,000 people for a practice. In the immortal words of Allen Iverson, while he was playing for former KU coach Larry Brown on the Philadelphia 76ers, “We’re talkin’ about practice.” To juxtapose the co-Big 12 champions from a season ago, the Jayhawks’ purple rivals to the west held their own version of Late Night less than a week later. Kansas State’s Madness in Manhattan drew a crowd of 5,500.

The hysteria of Late Night and the attendance at practice are emblematic of how insatiable the love is for Jayhawk basketball. Bill Self, in his 11th season as Kansas’ head coach, has 300 wins, nine consecutive Big 12 titles, two Final Four appearances and one national championship, but the amplifier has been turned to 11 on his program in a way he hasn’t seen in the 10 previous years of his tenure. And it’s mostly because of an 18-year-old who’s been billed as a once-in-a-generation player.

Andrew Wiggins eschewed the silly hat displays and TV cameras that normally plague athletes’ college announcements and picked Kansas in May, while schools like Kentucky, Duke and his parents’ alma mater of Florida State lost out on the Wiggins sweepstakes. Playing his high school basketball at Huntington Prep in West Virginia, Wiggins was the most coveted player on the recruiting trail, averaging 23.4 points and 11.1 rebounds per game as a senior.

Several college basketball scribes who usually aren’t susceptible to hyperbole aren’t bashful with the superlatives. Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News told SportsRadio 810 WHB that Wiggins is “one of the best athletes to ever play the game of basketball.” The mix tapes of Wiggins while he played at Huntington Prep clearly show a player with a tremendous skill set, but the hype almost suggests that Wiggins is superhuman, which is unreasonable and excessive until there’s an adequate sample size of game action to evaluate him.

How can a kid who’s been a cover boy for Sports Illustrated and had a spread in GQ possibly meet these expectations as the next LeBron James? Perhaps he can. And perhaps he reverses the trend of other supposedly slam-dunk prospects in the one-and-done category who have fizzled in varying degrees at Kansas. Xavier Henry had lots of fanfare as a freshman in 2009, but he didn’t have the huge year statistically that KU fans may have expected. More glaringly, Josh Selby was touted as one of the best freshmen in college basketball when he became eligible in December 2010. But Selby, whose first game was actually his best, sputtered in his only year at Kansas and averaged just 7.9 points in his 26 injury-riddled games.

Wiggins is a different player and a different talent than either of those guys, though, and in the 21 points that he scored in the open practice, he showed his diversified game by throwing down alley-oops in transition and unspooling a silky perimeter jump shot.

And Kansas isn’t just Wiggins and a bunch of rag-tags. The Jayhawks would’ve been good even if he had chosen another school. Another prominent freshman, combo guard Wayne Selden, is a frighteningly hard worker in practice, and at 6’5” and 230 pounds, is built like a linebacker and could be an important contributor offensively. Tarik Black, the transfer from Memphis, provides some muscle in the interior, can clean the glass and can cash in on second-chance opportunities. Naadir Tharpe is the only junior on the team as he replaces Elijah Johnson at point guard, but freshman Frank Mason should also get some valuable minutes at the point.

With 10 scholarship players who are freshmen and sophomores — and that doesn’t include Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson, who’s sitting out the season — the Jayhawks have a lot of growing up to do.

5 Great December Games from Kansas’ Past

Over the last quarter century, Kansas has played some entertaining basketball in December to get prepped for league play:

Dec. 9, 1989: Kansas 150, Kentucky 95
First-year Kentucky coach Rick Pitino kept pressing, and the Jayhawks kept scoring. The 1989-90 team is one of Roy Williams’ most underrated, and the Jayhawks eviscerated overmatched Kentucky with 80 points in the first half and 70 in the second. The 150 points are the most ever scored in a game in Kansas history.

Dec. 22, 1993: Kansas 86, Indiana 83, OT
Damon Bailey scored a game-high 36 points for Indiana, but Jacque Vaughn’s double-clutch three-pointer with 0.2 seconds on the clock won it for the Jayhawks in one of the great December games ever played in Allen Fieldhouse. Nine months earlier, Kansas beat Indiana in St. Louis to reach the 1993 Final Four.

Dec. 4, 1996: Kansas 72, Cincinnati 65
Trailing No. 4 Cincinnati 35-23 at the half, top-ranked Kansas steamrolled through the second stanza as Paul Pierce scored 15 points after intermission to stun the Bearcats at the old DirecTV Great Eight in Chicago.

Dec. 8, 2012: Kansas 90, Colorado 54
“Kansas just came out,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said, “and manhandled us from start to finish.” Many expected this game to be tight because of Kansas’ inconsistency in their first seven games last year. KU’s response? Leading a pretty good Colorado team by as many as 42 points in the Jayhawks’ most impressive win of the season. That is, until ...

Dec. 22, 2012: Kansas 74, Ohio State 66
When two Top 10 teams met in Columbus, KU won its third game in a year against Ohio State, which was held to 9-of-36 shooting in the second half of a game the Hawks basically controlled from the opening tap. Ben McLemore, currently a rookie with the Sacramento Kings, scored 22 points for Kansas.

And if Self’s practices don’t get their attention, their schedule might. December is commonly marked by a few freebies on the non-conference schedule, where Kansas can play home games against Florida Atlantic, Jackson State or Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and win by 40 or 50 points. But there are no December lay-ups on this diabolical slate arranged by Larry Keating, KU’s special assistant to the athletic director in charge of scheduling.

DEC. 7
The Jayhawks head for the mountains when they play at Colorado for the first time since the Buffaloes’ split from the Big 12. Coach Tad Boyle, a former Jayhawk in the Brown era, is leading a renaissance in Colorado basketball. The Buffs have won 69 games in his first three seasons, along with a Pac-12 Tournament title and consecutive NCAA Tournament berths. How much can KU rely on its fans from western Kansas to turn the Coors Events Center into Allen Fieldhouse West now that the arena sells out on a regular basis?

DEC. 10
Kansas squares off with SEC power Florida in Gainesville, a place the Jayhawks haven’t played in since Jan. 11, 1996, when they beat Dametri “Da Meat Hook” Hill and the Gators 69-54. Florida has played in three straight Elite Eights and could have another Top 10 team that pushes or beats KU if they can get guys healthy (Will Yeguete) and eligible (Scottie Wilbekin, freshman Chris Walker).

DEC. 14
When Steve Alford skedaddled from the land of “Breaking Bad” for UCLA, successor Craig Neal didn’t inherit a team of scrubs at New Mexico. The Lobos play Kansas Dec. 14 at Sprint Center, and Neal, who was Alford’s assistant at Iowa and New Mexico, has the luxury of coaching Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Kendall Williams for his senior season.

Williams put himself on the college basketball map last season by dropping 46 points on Colorado State, and he has experienced teammates like Aussie junior Hugh Greenwood and big man Alex Kirk. The game in Kansas City has been a mixed bag since 2009 for Kansas, which has slogged through wins against Oregon State and Colorado State and lost to UMass and Davidson.

DEC. 21
Georgetown may not have lottery pick Otto Porter anymore, but the Georgetown brand carries some prestige as the Hoyas make their first visit to Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 21. Burly center Josh Smith transferred from UCLA, and Georgetown’s coaches are looking to him to maintain the school’s tradition of great post players. The Hoyas have won 21 games or more in seven of the last eight years and should contend in the significantly retooled Big East. This also marks Kansas’ first game at Allen Fieldhouse in nearly a month, which is almost unprecedented for the Jayhawks during the non-conference part of the schedule.

DEC. 30
And Toledo is no bargain either. There’s been chatter that would make Jamie Farr proud about Toledo as an NCAA Tournament-type team. Akron and Ohio University are hurdles in the MAC, but coach Tod Kowalczyk is very confident about his team, which plays KU at Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 30. rates mid-major programs in their own Top 25, and the site had the Rockets at No. 23 in its preseason rankings.

It’s no wonder that says Kansas’ schedule is the most difficult in the country. KU plays these five games right in a row, and if anything, the competition that Keating has lined up for them should make the Jayhawks battle-tested before conference play.

The idea has been tossed around that Kansas could run the table in the league, but that’s implausible even for a team with this much ability. Only once has a team gone undefeated in the Big 12, when Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison, Drew Gooden and Jeff Boschee led Kansas to a 16-0 conference record (and averaged nearly 100 points a game doing it) in 2002. What’s more plausible is the Jayhawks having to fend off Oklahoma State for its 10th consecutive Big 12 regular season championship. Their two games with super-sophomore Marcus Smart and the Pokes should be must-see TV the way Thursday nights used to be on NBC.

Whatever their record is, if Wiggins and his teammates jell in December, January and February, they ought to be a force again in March.

photos courtesy Jeff Jacobsen, Kansas Athletics