The most intriguing college basketball rivalry in the country involves a perfectly executed back flip, an egregiously short tie and a basketball game on Saturday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse.
So let’s get everybody up to speed on the characters.
Character 1: The Backflipper.
Otherwise known as Oklahoma State sophomore guard Marcus Smart. You remember Smart’s first trip to Allen Fieldhouse, right? It was late last February. No. 2 Kansas had won 33 straight at home. And Smart celebrated an 85-80 upset with a back flip on James Naismith Court.
One year later, as the Back flipper leads No. 9 Oklahoma State back into the Phog to face No. 15 Kansas at 3 p.m. on Saturday, the aftershocks of last year’s upset can still be felt in Lawrence.
“I don’t have any comment on it,” said KU freshman Wayne Selden, who copped to watching last year’s game on television.
“I thought it was beautiful form,” KU coach Bill Self said. “I thought he tucked just at the right time and got full extension.”
Character 2: The Freshman.
Otherwise known as Andrew Wiggins, the 6-foot-8 swingman who was supposed to challenge Smart for the title of Big 12’s best player.
On an early morning in October, Wiggins arrived at Big 12 Media Day in Kansas City wearing an orange dress shirt and a black tie about six inches too short. Oklahoma State and Kansas had been voted as Big 12 co-favorites in the preseason coaches poll. And Smart, perhaps the biggest threat to KU’s streak of nine straight league titles, delivered some direct and honest thoughts on the hype surrounding Wiggins.
“He puts his shorts on one leg at a time like me,” Smart said.
A few days earlier, he’d opened up more to USA Today:
“They are saying he is the best college player there is, and he has not even played a game yet,” Smart said. “Of course that hypes me up. It is all talk.”
If the comments irked Wiggins, he gave no indication this week.
“When someone says something,” Wiggins said, “and I don’t really care for the person, he doesn’t influence me or nothing like that, it doesn’t really matter what he says, unless you’re like my parents or my family, my friends.”
So this is the prologue, the rising action before Saturday’s climax. A supremely confident point guard. A talented freshman beginning to find his voice. And a surging Kansas team looking to avenge last season’s loss.
“They came here last year, and then won,” Wiggins said. “So we got to come up with the ‘W’ this time.”
With a victory on Saturday, Kansas, 12-4 and 3-0 in the Big 12, can move two games ahead of Oklahoma State, 15-2 and 3-1, which opened Big 12 play with a loss at Kansas State.
This is college basketball at its best, and part of the reason Wiggins chose to attend Kansas. His first couple months on campus included the usual doses of freshman suffering, of course, and Wiggins was left to learn the hard way. The Jayhawks lost four times before the Big 12 season. And Wiggins battled through a six-game stretch where he averaged 13.2 points and shot 33 percent from the floor.
Wiggins says he was just learning, growing by the day. He just needed calm.
“He’s learning how to impact the game more ways as he’s moving forward,” Self said. “He’s just young.”
In his last two games, Wiggins has began to show signs of that calm. He scored 13 straight points in the second half of a dominating victory over K-State, and he scored 17 points and grabbed 19 rebounds inside an angry and intimidating Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State.
In all, Wiggins is now averaging 20.2 points per game against ranked teams, his best performances coming on the biggest stages.
“People get hung up on overall stats,” Self said. “I think if you were going to ask NBA people, they’d want to see how they played when they played against the best competition and the best teams.”
Wiggins says he expects to guard Smart for stretches on Saturday. So on Thursday afternoon, two days before the Freshman was to face the Back flipper, a reporter asked Wiggins he’d seen the flip.
“Yeah,” Wiggins said. “I didn’t think nothing of it.”
“I can’t do it.”