LAWRENCE — Kansas has been in this position before, right? The sky falling in December? Maybe that’s why we’re not ready to bet against the Jayhawks winning a 10th straight Big 12 title. If that’s to happen, here’s what I might be writing three months from now ...
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
Bill Self tried to warn everyone. Maybe you don’t remember. It’s been a while.
Now that it’s March, and Kansas basketball is again in the national-title picture, it’s easy to forget the Jayhawks lost three of four games and generally looked miserable three months ago. So let’s go back to the middle of December, before Kanye said that crazy thing about Obama, before Justin Bieber cried with Oprah, and before KU won its 10th consecutive Big 12 championship.
Let’s go all the way back to the Florida game. You might remember that was the low point of KU’s season, and it had a lot of people freaked out. Everyone seemed to have forgotten the win over Duke.
The Jayhawks were overmatched for parts of that Florida game, Self calling it a “miserable” performance. But then, afterward, with Twitter and message boards and barstools going nuts, Self tried to warn everyone by saying this on the postgame radio show:
“At the end of the year, we can be the last ones laughing.”
At the time, nobody really paid much attention to those words. Which was understandable. The Jayhawks had real issues. Mostly, they had no natural, vocal leader. Naadir Tharpe was slumping, and Perry Ellis just isn’t outgoing enough. Joel Embiid might be the first pick in the NBA Draft this summer, but he doesn’t have the temperament.
So, starting around the beginning of December, when it became obvious that Tharpe wasn’t taking charge the way Self hoped, the coach did something he’d never really done before. He became the team’s vocal leader, at least temporarily, while making sure the team played through Andrew Wiggins and Embiid. The effects didn’t come immediately — it was like planting a seed and waiting for the harvest.
For Self, it meant an exhausting season, with more energy and stomping and hugging than ever before. But when you have two incredible talents like Wiggins and Embiid — and neither have it in them to lead with their words quite yet — well, that’s why Self has a $50 million contract.
Eventually, Tharpe grew into more of the vocal leadership. You started to see glimpses of it in late December, between semesters, when Self’s teams always make the most progress. The team was lifted by the other-worldly gifts of Wiggins and Embiid. You could see the other guys steal some swagger when those guys dominated games. But this group didn’t become a real team until Tharpe made the transition from something of an appendage to something more like the team’s soul.
Self also foreshadowed this change back in mid-December.
“For us to have a really good year, Naadir’s got to step up,” Self said back then. “There’s no other way around it.”
One other issue the Jayhawks had back then was of their own doing. Nobody was ready to admit it, but it was becoming clear that it was a mistake to put Wiggins on every magazine cover short of Seventeen. Wiggins has superstar talent, but for the most part still had a teenager’s disposition. The hype got out in front of him, and he wasn’t comfortable with it.
Self shut down the media buffet in November, letting Wiggins carry on like a normal player. Wiggins still spoke with reporters, but no longer did he do the extended one-on-one interviews that fed a narrative repeated so often it became rooted in the mainstream: Wiggins was to score 30 a game, with at least one dunk from the free-throw line. It took him a little while to get used to that, and then to stop caring about it.
Just like Self taking on more of the leadership role that’s typically saved for his players, his tweak with Wiggins’ exposure needed a little time before the benefits showed.
The irony is that once he stopped carrying those expectations, Wiggins started playing like a future NBA star — and we can now identify those 26 points he scored in that loss to Florida as the beginning.
Today, as the college basketball season builds up to its March climax, Wiggins is in position to make some All-America teams, and is again expected to be the No. 1 pick in the draft after slipping in some evaluations back in November and December.
Here in March, there is some revisionist history about what fans and media thought about KU in its lowest moment. They will say the players on this team had it in them all along, that all they needed was time, because with all that talent how could the outcome be any different?
But that’s not how it was back in December. There was genuine concern, both from some fans and many in the media, even though we seem to go through this every year.
The panic in 2011-12 came after a bad loss to Davidson at Sprint Center. With hindsight, you will hear people say Tyshawn Taylor always had it in him to galvanize that group.
The panic in 2012-13 came after three straight conference losses. With hindsight, you will hear people say a group with four seniors could be trusted to come out of that.
And the panic in 2013-14 will always be marked by that ugly loss at Florida. Now, here in March, with hindsight, you will hear people say that of course a team with two top-five picks and two other first-rounders would eventually rally together and win another league title.
Of course little signs like closing to within four on the road to Florida, or playing its way back into position for overtime before being beaten by a wild 30-footer at Colorado, meant something. And of course the group suffered in the short-term without a bunch of easy home games early, but benefited from the tough love once the conference season started.
Of course we all see those things now.
But it wasn’t always like that. That’s not what people said back in mid-December.
If only there were a way to go back.