Prodigy that he is, Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins was trumpeted to the point of absurdity. He couldn’t possibly justify all that fuss, could he?
Plus, an anvil of pressure would be hovering over his head. Or the hype surely would so inflate his self-image as to make him uncoachable with the NBA beckoning next year.
But none of those natural concerns factored in this: Wiggins somehow was, and is, unfazed by it all. And he was, and is, eminently coachable.
“Because I know that you never know too much,” he said Thursday. “You know?”
And now you know this, too: Wiggins’ rites of passage are behind him at the most meaningful of times for the Jayhawks.
He demonstrated that with an essential encore to his 41-point performance against West Virginia in KU’s previous game.
Wiggins stepped nimbly into the postseason with a 30-point, eight-rebound performance in KU’s 77-70 overtime win over Oklahoma State in a Big 12 quarterfinal at the Sprint Center.
It was imperative because injured center Joel Embiid is likely out through at least the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
It was pivotal because KU was coming off two losses in its last three games and doubts were surfacing about its trajectory and NCAA-seeding traction minus Embiid.
Because of that context, a loss to Oklahoma State certainly would have meant a descent in the Jayhawks’ perch, and factored into their NCAA Tournament matchups.
So Wiggins was instrumental in resuscitating Kansas’ stature and revived fading hopes of a No. 1 seed.
“Great players make great plays during crunch time,” senior forward Tarik Black said. “And now it’s crunch time.”
Somehow, that looked natural in Wiggins’ first foray into March Madness, which was best previewed to him by his brother Nick, a senior guard at Wichita State.
“From his experience last year, he just said, ‘You wouldn’t believe how amazing it is if you are not there to witness,’” Wiggins said.
To witness Wiggins’ game was to see him score 17 of KU’s 35 second-half points, including the game-tying jumper with a minute left in regulation.
And to see him hit three of six three-pointers and nine of 10 free throws (after making 15 of 19 at West Virginia). He also had three steals and three assists (albeit while surrendering five turnovers).
Wiggins also disrupted the Cowboys’ Markel Brown, who managed just five of 13 field goals.
“Andrew is not one-dimensional,” KU coach Bill Self said. “He’s our best defender.”
As for the most noticeable dimension, on offense, Wiggins has found a niche now that wasn’t easy to come by, the blurry line that straddles asserting and forcing. There’s a reason that’s come into focus in the second half of the season.
“The game’s slowed down since I first started playing college basketball,” he said. “I learned a lot in practice that happens in games.”
It’s the games now, of course, that will define KU’s season and Wiggins’ career, but he seems to embrace the enhanced pressure instead of shrinking from it.
“You can’t take one possession off now,” he said. “You’ve got to play every game like it’s your last, because it really could be your last.”
That’s more applicable to NCAA play than it is Big 12, but the mentality is similar: win or go home.
And it matters plenty enough now.
If the Jayhawks beat Iowa State on Friday to barge into the finals on Saturday, they’ll maximize their chances of obtaining an elite seed. A better seed, in turn, would better enable them to stay alive in NCAA play until Embiid’s possible return.
“When (Embiid) comes back, we’re going to be even better, because he brings so much to the table that no one else in the country can bring,” Wiggins said. “You’re not going to find another 7-footer” like him.
On the flip side, as Self likes to say, nothing is assured today against the Cyclones even though the Jayhawks swept the regular-season series against them.
KU needed everything it had to beat the Cowboys, and Self considers Iowa State the most talented team in the Big 12.
Consider, too, that Wayne Selden was the only other Jayhawk in double-figures on Thursday.
“That’s not going to cut it over time,” Self said.
So Kansas looks plenty mortal without Embiid and beyond Wiggins, and with all this comes another implication: Any KU opponent now has to be thinking it would give up plenty of other things before it lets Wiggins beat them.
That’s going to call on him to be even more resourceful and poised.
But by now, don’t doubt he’s up to the task.
As Wiggins considered the question of whether he has wanted to shoulder more of the load in Embiid’s absence, he diplomatically said everyone on the team has to.
But he also conceded, “I’m OK with it.” He never knows too much, yes, but it’s safe to say he knows that.