There's a reason to doubt that Andrew Wiggins in one year of college can win a national title with a team full of freshmen at Kansas, but it can happen.
But first, let me share a story about Bill Self.
It was late February in 2012, and Kansas was playing Missouri for what was potentially the final meeting between the two rivals ever. Several weeks before that, the Jayhawks had blown a late lead to the Tigers and Self was as pissed as I've ever seen him.
That night, I followed him out of his press conference in Columbia and he was replaying the game out loud. His star player, Thomas Robinson, had been called for a charge late in the game. “How was that a charge?” Self asked reporters on his way back to the locker room.
Self had said publicly that he would not play Missouri again. The Tigers were leaving the Big 12. That was their fault.
He tried to play off the final game as any other game, but he knew it meant a lot more than that to the school and it meant a lot to him too. He couldn't end the series with a bad taste in his mouth.
Kansas had played poorly three days before in a win at Texas A&M, and the Jayhawks' star, Robinson, had lost his head. He pushed an Aggie late in that game and got a technical.
The next day, Self said he called Robinson into his office.
“You’ve got to think for the team’s benefit, you can’t push anybody," Self told him.
Then Self flipped his message, building Robinson back up.
“He’s got all of his family counting on him to do things,” Self said. “He’s got everybody in his ear. He really doesn’t have anybody in his family that can tell him, ‘I’m proud of you no matter what happens.’”
Robinson had lost his mom and both grandparents a year before, and by the time of the Missouri game, it was obvious he was in his last season at KU and would be a lottery pick.
From that moment forward, Robinson no longer seemed to feel as much pressure. He helped lead an amazing comeback in that final game against Mizzou—KU rallied from 19 points down—and he helped lead a team with few preseason expectations (at least for the Jayhawks' standards) to the national title game.
Andrew Wiggins is coming to Kansas with expectations that few (if any) college players have ever faced. Michael Jordan had two other stars, Sam Perkins and James Worthy, to help him as a freshman. Jordan was the third-leading scorer on the team in his freshman season when UNC won the title, and that was before Jordan was what we know today. LeBron James never went to college.
This is the club, fair or not, that Wiggins will be compared to for the next few years unless he looks like a total bust.
What Wiggins is about to experience is almost unprecedented. The reaction (and vile) on Twitter after his announcement was pretty much unprecedented.
But if any coach can figure out a way to help guide Wiggins through this process, to deal with the pressure, to challenge him when he needs to be challenged and love him when he needs to be loved, it's Self.
Why to Bet Against Wiggins and Kansas in 2014
This is the best class Self has had at Kansas since he signed Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Julian Wright and Micah Downs in 2005. That class lost in the first round of the tournament as freshmen. What it took for that group to eventually win the title in 2008 was one player's misfortune turning into fortune for Kansas.
After that group's sophomore year, Wright left for the NBA and Rush was also going to leave; however, he ended up tearing his ACL in a hush-hush workout with the Knicks. That convinced him to stay in school, and it's tough to imagine that KU would have won the title without him.
So that group took three years to become a championship team; Self does not have that kind of time this go-around, as no one expects Wiggins will make it to his sophomore season.
The best comparison for what KU will put on the court next season is what Texas had in 2007 in Kevin Durant's freshman season.
Texas also started four freshmen in Durant's one year in college along with a sophomore guard. One of those other freshmen, D.J. Augustin, was a lottery pick after his sophomore season. Another, Damion James, ended up making it to the league as well. It wasn't just Durant and a bunch of nobodies.
Durant was even better than advertised—averaging 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds—and that team lost in the round of 32.
The Jayhawks could potentially start up to four freshmen: Wiggins, guards Wayne Selden and Conner Frankamp and center Joel Embiid. Sophomore forward Perry Ellis would be the fifth starter with that group. It's more likely that KU at least starts the season with junior Naadir Tharpe at point guard, but those four freshmen will be in the rotation, along with fellow freshman Brannen Greene and sophomore Jamari Traylor.
Why Kansas Could Win Big in Wiggins' One Year
Bill Self was on the radio in Kansas City on Tuesday talking about Wiggins, and one thing he said particularly stood out to me.
"He has a very mature, assassin-type mentality on the court," Self said of Wiggins. "He likes the competition. He likes the fight. He likes the struggle. He lives for that stuff."
This should have Jayhawks fans giddy because they just watched another talented freshman, Ben McLemore, have an incredible first season; however, he was hardly noticeable in the NCAA tournament. He often disappeared away from Allen Fieldhouse. "Assassin" would not have been a good description for McLemore.
Self had already put together a talented roster for next year, but he needed an alpha dog.
That's what Wiggins gives KU, and the pieces fit nicely around him. Both Wiggins and Selden are explosive athletes who can attack the rim. Self can surround them with shooters—Frankamp and Greene—who can space the floor.
Self's best teams always have a scorer in the post, and Ellis fits that role. After struggling to finish most of his freshman season, he averaged 13.8 points and shot 82 percent during a four-game stretch in March.
Kansas is always one of the best defensive teams in the country. Last year's team led the nation in two-point defense and effective field-goal percentage, according to KenPom.com. Self's teams have finished in the top 10 in effective field-goal percentage in nine of his 10 seasons as head coach. Both Selden and Wiggins have the athleticism to be elite defenders and Embiid is a rim-protector.
Two one-and-done star prospects have won the national championship: Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony and Kentucky's Anthony Davis.
Syracuse had another freshman (Gerry McNamara) and two sophomores in its starting lineup that year. Kentucky started three freshmen in 2012. The Wildcats had the perfect pieces to surround Davis and the scorers to make up for his unrefined offensive game. Syracuse had enough scorers to give Anthony room to operate.
Both, like Kansas, had Hall of Fame (or eventual Hall of Fame-worthy) coaches.
Jayhawks fans will be able to talk themselves into how the team could win the title.
"Potential is something you have on paper," Self said on the radio Tuesday. "That doesn't mean you'll live up to it."
Self has a way of bringing out the potential. His staff turned McLemore from a relatively unknown talent to a top pick in the draft.
After Kansas lost all five starters from the 2008 championship team, the next year, the Jayhawks won 27 games, won the Big 12 and made the Sweet 16. Two years ago, Self took a team that returned one starter to the national championship game.
He's won more games in his 10 years at Kansas than any other program in the country. In the last seven years, KU has won more games (228) than any program in the history of college basketball over a seven-year span. Self has won nine straight Big 12 titles. All of that was without having a talent like Wiggins.
It might be a little too early to anoint the Jayhawks a title contender just because of Wiggins, but college basketball season begins in October, ends in April and Kansas wins the Big 12 title and has a high seed in the NCAA tournament in March.
In other words, don't discount Bill Self's ability to do Bill Self things with Andrew Wiggins.
Author's Note: All quotes used in this story were obtained firsthand.
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