LAWRENCE — The final two minutes were a microcosm, a blend of the good and bad.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
Andrew Wiggins has been scrutinized and dissected this season, maybe more than any college basketball player in recent college basketball memory. Possession by possession, tweet by tweet, minute by minute.
But if you’re looking for a stretch that can help you understand Wiggins’ freshman season, you could do worse than the last minutes of Kansas’ 85-82 loss to K-State on Monday in Manhattan.
The Jayhawks trailed by nine when the stretch began, and they were tied when the buzzer sounded. In the span 113 seconds, Wiggins hit a driving layup, forced K-State freshman Marcus Foster into a crucial miss on defense, and finished a follow in the final seconds that defied some general laws of physics and inertia.
Of course, he also air-balled a potential game-tying three-pointer with 45 seconds left, missing the rim by nearly a foot.
The Jayhawks lost in overtime, of course, so Wiggins’ finishing stretch was mostly lost. Junior guard Naadir Tharpe was also key during the comeback, and freshman Brannen Greene probably hit the two most important baskets with a dunk-steal-layup series that cut K-State’s lead to 68-65.
But let’s stay on Wiggins for a moment.
Wiggins’ freshman season has been a fascinating examination of hype, expectations and perception. In his first 24 games, Wiggins is averaging 16 points per game — the most ever by a KU freshman. He’s also shooting just 43.5 percent from the floor and 35 percent from three-point range. According to one advanced metric, he’s been the most productive player in the country. Other times, he’s looked like a freshman.
So let’s look back at two plays in particular from that stretch.
• 1. The first is the three-point attempt, which came with Kansas trailing by three with 45 seconds left, and close to 30 seconds on the shot clock. Wiggins’ shot was probably a good decision for two reasons. One, he was wide open. But Kansas also needed as quick a shot as possible to set up a two-for-one scenario in the final minute.
In an ideal world, the Jayhawks would have got a quick drive that would have still set up a two-for-one. But considering there was nobody within six feet, it was a good look. The execution was just off.
• 2. Wiggins’ game-tying follow off his own missed shot ( Watch the whole play there) is also worth another look, if for no other reason than the pure absurdity of the athleticism. (In the moment, I immediately thought of that Larry Bird follow scoop you see on all the NBA highlight videos.)
Kansas spent most of the last few minutes with a small lineup on the floor, and the Wildcats had trouble stopping the Jayhawks’ weave on the perimeter. So trailing 69-67 on the final possession, Tharpe started the play by handing off to Wiggins on the left wing.
Wiggins started his drive and picked up his dribble near the free throw line. His long strides almost allowed him to get all the way to the rim, but K-State’s Marcus Foster was able to funnel him toward the baseline and Wiggins has to put up a difficult runner. The ball bounded off the glass and rim, and here’s where Wiggins was with 9.0 seconds left (8.8 seconds according to the shot clock):
Notice the position of the four K-State players around the lane? If Wiggins had an advantage, it’s that he probably knew the shot was going to be off. Thomas Gipson was busy boxing out Perry Ellis, while an extra bounce on the rim caused Nino Williams to mistime his jump on the weakside.
All of this happened in one second, of course, and he’s where Wiggins was at the 8.0 second mark.
By most reasonable measures, Wiggins’ freshman season has been a success. At times, though, he can still look like a freshman, and maybe that’s where some of the disappointment comes from. But then there are times like these, the final seconds on Monday night, and Wiggins can still do something on the floor that maybe one or two other players in the country can do.
The seed question
In the big picture, should Monday’s loss be alarming for Kansas? The losses are stacking up now — that’s six by Feb. 10 — and here’s some historical perspective on that front: This is the first time Kansas has had six losses in early February since the 2005-06 season, when KU had six losses by Jan. 16. (They only lost two more games the rest of the way.) Bill Self simply isn’t used to losing this much. From 2006 to 2011, KU averaged 4.4 losses per season.
So that’s that.
But anyway, here’s a couple reasons why the won-loss record doesn’t mean that much.
Despite the 18-6 losses, Kansas is still No. 1 in the NCAA’s RPI metric, ahead of unbeatens Syracuse and Wichita State and one-loss Arizona. And they’re ranked third in the BPI, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and 11th according to KenPom.com rankings.
Barring a collapse over the final weeks, KU is still in solid position to grab at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title, and that should make for an intriguing question on Selection Sunday.
We could be looking at a team that wins the nation’s toughest conference — and is ranked in the top five in the majority of computer metrics — but has something like seven, eight or nine losses.
Could all those losses keep KU from earning another No. 1 seed? Maybe. But there might just be four teams that are more deserving as well.