Twice this season Andrew Wiggins played Oklahoma State and walked away feeling like he could have done more. With his team's back against the wall and needing him more than ever, Wiggins made sure the third time would be the charm.
Wiggins scored a game-high 30 points, as No. 10 Kansas overcame injuries and foul trouble in its frontcourt to defeat the upset-minded Cowboys, 77-70, in their quarterfinal matchup at the 2014 Big 12 tournament.
The top-seeded Jayhawks advance to play Iowa State in the semifinals as they search for their second straight sweep of the tournament and regular-season conference titles. The Cyclones took over down the stretch in their 91-85 victory over Kansas State in an extremely Kansas-friendly crowd at the Sprint Center.
Playing without center Joel Embiid for the third straight game, the Jayhawks needed all the help they could get. Oklahoma State was a No. 8 seed in record only, its season irreparably altered by a still-confusing seven-game losing streak. The Cowboys defeated Kansas at home two weeks ago and played the regular-season conference champions within two points in Lawrence.
The two contests were among the most dispiriting of Wiggins' young career. He scored a combined 18 points on 6-of-21 shooting and was even benched by head coach Bill Self for a long period during their first meeting.
Coming off the finest game of his career against West Virginia, though, Wiggins atoned for his struggles and then some. As his teammates struggled to get into rhythm, the freshman superstar played with a fierce aggression and confidence absent for much of his collegiate career.
Wiggins was especially clutch as Oklahoma State battled its way back into the game in the second half. Down nine points at halftime, the Cowboys scored seven points in 11 seconds to close the gap within 57-56 with 6:48 remaining in regulation. They would eventually take their first lead since early in the first half and play Kansas within a possession the rest of the second half.
A Markel Brown three-point jumper gave Oklahoma State a 67-65 lead, setting up Wiggins to knock down a jumper with a minute remaining to send it to overtime. Though he didn't score in the overtime period, the Jayhawks needed every one of his 17 second-half points.
Myron Medcalf of ESPN was one of many to praise Wiggins' maturity amid the difficult situation:
That's a gutsy win by a team playing without its starting center. Wiggins answered every question, if there were anymore.— Myron Medcalf (@MedcalfByESPN) March 13, 2014
Wiggins has scored 71 points over his last two games and was one of just two Jayhawks in double figures. Wayne Selden Jr., though he struggled with his outside shot, finished with 14 points. Naadir Tharpe scored Kansas' last four points in overtime, as Kansas held Oklahoma State without a point for the final 4:09.
Oklahoma State shot just 37.9 percent from the field overall, its legs seemingly fading down the stretch. LeBryan Nash's 19 points were a team high, while Marcus Smart scuffled down the stretch for his 14 points. Smart was locked in and engaged on both ends of the floor throughout regulation, but finished 4-of-14 on field-goal attempts as jumpers stopped falling.
The loss is an especially big disappointment for the Cowboys' seeding in the NCAA tournament. While they've rebounded from their midseason swoon and should have no trouble punching a ticket, a victory against Kansas could have upped them into another tier—especially had they continued on. ESPN's Joe Lunardi currently has Oklahoma State as a No. 9 seed.
Meanwhile, Kansas has to hope this is the start of a special run from Wiggins. Embiid was diagnosed with a fracture in his back and has been ruled out for the Big 12 tournament. There hasn't been an official time frame placed on his return, but Self indicated he may be out well into the NCAA tournament.
"He's not playing this week, at all," Self told reporters. "The thing about it is, we'll play him whenever the doctors and Joel's body say he's ready to play, and I'm confident—and others are—that it's going to happen. But to be real candid, we may have to advance for it to happen."
If Wiggins continues playing the way he did Thursday, though, Embiid might be able to come back just in time for a potential national title run. Either way, it looks far more plausible now than when Embiid initially went down.
|Kamari Murphy, C||C|
|Le'Bryan Nash, F||B-|
|Marcus Smart, G||B-|
|Markel Brown, G||C-|
|Phil Forte, III, G||B-|
|Leyton Hammonds, F||C|
|Brian Williams, F||C|
|Tarik Black, F||C+|
|Perry Ellis, F||C|
|Andrew Wiggins, G||B+|
|Wayne Selden, Jr., G||B|
|Naadir Tharpe, G||C|
|Jamari Traylor, F||C+|
|Landen Lucas, F||C|
|Frank Mason, G||C|
Players of the Game: Andrew Wiggins (F, Kansas) and Marcus Smart (G, Oklahoma State)
The criticisms of Wiggins have oscillated between totally fair and nonsensical all season. It was always unrealistic to expect him to arrive in Lawrence and become the demigod the high school highlight films promised. Stars like LeBron James come along once in a generation—if once in history—for a pretty good reason.
But those who found themselves watching Kansas and wondering why Wiggins would disappear for entire stretches had a point. While the most advanced defensively among his touted counterparts, Wiggins' propensity for hanging in the corner with his eyes wide were reminiscent of James—the worst possible version who showed in the 2011 NBA finals.
Over the last two games, though, Wiggins has proven he has the ability to lead a team. He almost single-handedly brought the Jayhawks back against West Virginia, relentlessly attacking the hoop and playing solid defense on a night filled with breakdowns. As he skied for a career-high four blocks in that contest, it was as if Wiggins decided to take on his and Embiid's load.
The highs on either end of the floor weren't as spectacular Thursday, but in a way they were more impressive. Wiggins has always had the physical capabilities to take over a game. For the first time, it seems he's understanding the necessity of him actually doing so.
It's possible he could come out against Iowa State and disappear again. Every promising sign from Wiggins has typically been followed by a single-digit scoring output where he looks years away from realizing his immense potential. For now, Kansas fans will hold their breath that the last two games are a sign that Wiggins finally gets "it."
Similar questions continue to follow Smart, whose every move has been scrutinized since his run-in with a Texas Tech fan. Viewed as a calming force well beyond his years last season, Smart's every expression of emotion is now being dissected with a surgeon's precision.
As, of course, are his foibles on the court—some of which were on display against Kansas. Smart still isn't advanced enough as a passer to give me faith he can create with the ball in his hand at the next level. He's also just not a good jump shooter. There's no reason to mince words at this point.
But the passion and aggression he displays with the ball in his hand is reminiscent or Russell Westbrook in some ways. Smart is fearless. He'll barrel into the lane, take contact and finish better than any point guard in the nation. It's unlikely his representation will showcase this game to NBA scouts, but this was a pretty good indication of who Smart is.
Kansas moves on to the semifinals to face Iowa State on Friday. Oklahoma State is left to await word from the NCAA tournament regarding its status. The Cowboys will either play Thursday or Friday, barring a decision to hold them out of the Dance entirely.
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