Coming into the 2013-14 college basketball season it was hard to escape the shadow of freshman-sensation Andrew Wiggins even if you weren’t a hoops fan.
He graced the covers of preseason magazines, dominated air time on SportsCenter and was everyone’s assumed No. 1 pick in the upcoming 2014 NBA draft. Grantland’s Bill Simmons even coined the phrase “Riggin’ for Wiggins” to describe the presumed efforts of bad NBA teams to hypothetically attempt to improve their draft status by losing intentionally:
Wiggins was well on his way to National Freshman of the Year, National Player of the Year and Big 12 Player of the Year honors well before he even stepped on the court. However, with conference play right around the corner, Wiggins is far from a lock to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player come March.
It really wasn’t fair from the start, since anyone short of Michael Jordan in his prime would have had difficulty living up to the expectations that were placed on Wiggins’ teenage shoulders. Even if he hasn’t played to his ridiculous and hyperbolic billing, Wiggins has still been an incredibly productive player in the early going.
He leads Kansas with 15.9 points a game and is pulling down just shy of six rebounds every night. He has been solid on the defensive end and is shooting a respectable 48 percent from the field and 34 percent from downtown. Sure, he may have been passed on a national level by a handful of players, including fellow freshman Jabari Parker, who will be linked to Wiggins all season, but it’s not as if Wiggins is a liability on the court.
If anything, Kansas’ three early losses have hurt Wiggins’ preseason reputation as the best player in the country more than anything.
The Big 12 Player of the Year honors are up for grabs as we approach conference play, and Wiggins is very much a leading candidate even if he isn’t the prohibitive favorite anymore. Let’s dig into a few of Wiggins’ biggest challengers.
If we have to name a favorite heading into conference play, it would be Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart.
Smart is a legitimate superstar on both ends of the floor (which can’t be said about many of the best players at the collegiate level) and is posting nightly averages of 18.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.0 steals. He is the best player on the team that is best equipped to possibly end Kansas’ stranglehold on the Big 12 title.
If the Cowboys do knock off the Jayhawks and Smart continues to post dominant numbers, it would be surprising if anyone else takes home the league’s MVP honors.
Perry Ellis and Joel Embiid
There is a chance that Wiggins may lose out on the Big 12 Player of the Year award to one of his own teammates.
Both Perry Ellis and Joel Embiid have made big impressions across the country in the early going. Ellis is averaging 14.1 points and 6.7 rebounds a night, while Embiid has caught the eye of talent evaluators at the next level.
CBS Sports’ Zach Harper recently had Embiid projected to go No. 4 in his mock 2014 NBA draft and had nothing but praise for the Kansas big man:
He's shown us so much versatility in his game with covering ground, attacking the glass, protecting the rim, whipping passes around the court from various spots on the floor, and finishing inside. Embiid is the type of big man scouts drool over. Almost any other draft and his potential would probably make him a lock for the top pick.
While Embiid is a dream prospect from a professional standpoint, he isn’t posting the type of numbers necessary to win the Big 12 MVP (9.8 points and 6.5 rebounds a game). If Kansas does win the Big 12, Wiggins will in all likelihood take home the conference’s Player of the Year award.
Cory Jefferson and Melvin Ejim
While the majority of the Big 12 talk in the early going has revolved around Kansas and Oklahoma State, don’t sleep on Baylor and Iowa State. Both teams find themselves in the Top 25 with impressive starts and have been led by two of the best players in the conference.
Baylor’s Cory Jefferson is posting nightly numbers of 14.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game behind 54 percent shooting from the field. Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim counters with averages of 18.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.2 steals a game behind 52.5 percent shooting from the field and 38.5 percent shooting from downtown.
If either the Bears or Cyclones shock the conference and win the title, their respective leaders will receive serious consideration for the league’s MVP. Voters love to recognize surprise performers, and anyone outside of Kansas or Oklahoma State winning the Big 12 would certainly qualify as a surprise based on preseason expectations.
This being college basketball, there is bound to be a surprise candidate or two once league play begins. Wiggins is certainly a leading candidate to bring home the Big 12 Player of the Year award, but there are plenty of challengers who are waiting to state their cases.
Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.