It was the final minutes of the first half on Saturday night at TCU, and Kansas coach Bill Self sent freshman wing Brannen Greene to the scorer’s table to check in for sophomore forward Perry Ellis.
No. 8 Kansas had built a comfortable double-digit lead, taking control with an onslaught of offensive firepower, and Self felt like experimenting. So Greene joined fellow guards Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden Jr. and Conner Frankamp on the floor, and the Jayhawks went into a four-out, one-in offense with freshman center Joel Embiid manning the paint.
It was a new offensive wrinkle, something the Jayhawks could add to their repertoire moving forward, but it was also something more: For one of the first times this season, Kansas was playing five freshmen at once. And Self didn’t even notice.
“I didn’t even know that,” Self said, answering a question about the all-freshman lineup after the game. “… That’s the first time we’ve worked on our little small package that we put in, and it actually worked pretty well. But I don’t even look at these guys as freshmen anymore.”
In the aftermath of Kansas’ 91-69 victory over TCU on Saturday night at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum, it was easy to get stuck thinking about the development of the Jayhawks’ young nucleus. Wiggins had destroyed the Horned Frogs with a career-high 27 points, including 19 in the first half. The KU freshmen had combined to score 45 of the Jayhawks’ 53 points in the first half — and 75 of their 91 points in the game. It was a technical knockout after a flurry of early punches, and Kansas’ freshmen inflicted most of the damage.
But Self wanted to be clear: Maybe Wiggins, Embiid and Co. are still listed as freshmen, but that’s just a title. After emerging from the fire of a nonconference schedule — and starting the Big 12 with a 6-0 record — the Jayhawk freshmen are no longer their former selves. They’re just ready to keep moving forward.
“We’re not stepping back,” Selden said. “We’re not resting. We know we have to keep pushing forward. Six-and-oh is a good accomplishment, but it can always be better.”
This is an old college basketball story, of course. At some point during the year, usually in the months of January and February, the head coach proclaims that his freshmen are no longer freshmen. At some point, maybe 20 games into the season, the coach says something like Self said on Saturday night:I don’t even look at these guys as freshmen anymore.
Now, Self says, the goal is to take another step. In the first month of conference play, nearly all of Kansas’ freshman have shown signs of growth. Selden shook off some early offensive inconsistency and has averaged 13.2 points in six conference games. Wiggins has become more comfortable from the outside, hitting 40 percent (eight of 20) from three-point range. All year, Self has pushed Wiggins to be the Jayhawks’ most complete player — the player that can help KU reach its ceiling in March.
After a career performance on Saturday, Wiggins said he was relishing Self’s challenge to do more.
“It’s never a negative thing,” Wiggins said. “People might take it as negative criticism, but it’s not. It just motivates me to do better and try to provide more.”
Wiggins is not the only one who can do more, Self says. Embiid may be the most improved player in the country since the start of the season. But Self believes Embiid, who had a quiet 14 points on Saturday, can grow into a more polished player by March.
“He’s a sponge, and he’s going to continue to get better,” Self said. “He and Wiggs and Wayne, to me (they) have another big step to take this year, to give us a chance to have a pretty good season when it counts the most.”
It was just coincidence that Self said these words in a basketball arena in Fort Worth, just 20 miles from AT Stadium in Arlington, the site of this year’s Final Four in April. The Jayhawks are still focused on their Big 12 goals, Self says, and any talk of the postseason will have to wait. But as Wiggins and Embiid continue to grow, Kansas looks more and more like a team that can live up to its preseason billing as a Final Four contender.
“That’s a good basketball team,” TCU coach Trent Johnson said. “And I know it’s a long season … but I’d be very surprised, if they remain healthy, if they’re not here in April.”
But for now, the goal remains the same. On Wednesday night, Kansas will play host to No. 16 Iowa State at Allen Fieldhouse. A victory would give the Jayhawks a 7-0 start in the Big 12 for the third straight year.
“We’re playing decent right now,” Selden said. “But I feel like all of us — not just Joel, me and Wiggs — but all of us in the locker room can give a good 15 or 20 percent more.”