The first moment started with a back pick.
Andrew Wiggins was floating near the elbow, waiting for something happen, ready to spin toward the basket. Joel Embiid was standing like a 7-foot statue, ready to provide some separation. And a few feet away, Jamari Traylor had the ball at the three-point line, ready to float a pass to the rim.
For the next second, there was only anticipation. Wiggins was rising, the ball was floating, Allen Fieldhouse was ready to convulse. The clock said 6:56.
For more than 13 minutes Tuesday, as Wiggins had tried to fit in, playing against Pittsburg State in his first exhibition game, the crowd had waited for a moment. But really, the wait had been more like five months — ever since Wiggins, the nation’s top recruit, had announced his decision to go to Kansas back in May.
They wanted to see magic, something that could meet the ridiculous hype. And Wiggins, it appeared, was just looking to get comfortable.
For a while, it was pretty rough, too. He traveled on his first possession, clanked his first two three-pointers and generally looked like a freshman playing his first college minutes on a totally rebuilt Kansas team.
“He was definitely nervous,” Tharpe said. “It’s only right.”
But as Wiggins hung in the air, throwing down a two-handed dunk over Pittsburg State’s Trevor Gregory — an innocent bystander if there ever was one — he finally could feel a little bit at home in the Phog.
“That is a set play,” Tharpe said. “Don’t tell anybody.”
That’s not to say that Wiggins’ Kansas debut, a 97-57 exhibition victory over Pittsburg State, was all majestic dunks and soaring highlights. (Though an alley-oop from Wiggins to Embiid did effectively bring the house down in the final minutes.) For the most part, this night had all the trappings of a young player and young team taking its first run inside Allen Fieldhouse. By the end, Wiggins found his KU coach Bill Self for a postgame confession.
“Coach,” Wiggins said, according to Self. “I was so nervous.”
Wiggins finished the night with 16 points and six rebounds, making five of 13 shots in a game that teetered between choppy and downright sloppy. Wiggins wasn’t made available for postgame interviews — except to Canadian media — but Self said he was generally pleased with his heralded freshman’s debut.
“He’s a thinker right now,” Self said. “All freshmen are thinkers right now. There’s very few freshmen that are reactors. So he’s gotta get comfortable. But he’s thinking too much, which takes away from his explosiveness. …
“To me, you look up, he’s got 16 points and he really didn’t play that much and really didn’t make any shots. And that’s pretty positive to me.”
Sophomore forward Perry Ellis added 16 points and sophomore guard Andrew White III (12 points) showcased some improved athleticism as Kansas rolled to a blowout victory in game plagued by fouls.
Earlier this week, Kansas coach Bill Self offered some prophetic words about college basketball’s new rules, which aim to promote more offense by limiting hand-checking and contact on the perimeter. The new rules, Self said, would add more offense — but only because teams will shoot more free throws. In Self’s view, the game would actually become a little uglier, more fragmented.
Self was mostly right — but also cited bad defense principles from his team.
KU and Pitt State combined for 50 fouls and 61 free throw attempts. KU freshman guard Wayne Selden (two fouls) and senior forward Tarik Black (four) were hampered by foul trouble in the first half.
“It’s been tough,” Tharpe said. “We’ve tried to work on it in practice.”
Strip away the anticipation of an unofficial opening night — the Jayhawks will begin their regular season on Nov. 8 against Louisiana Monroe — and the game did serve a greater purpose. Kansas was able to quell some nerves and shake off some rust, and six freshmen were able to learn some lessons.
For moments, Kansas looked young and talented. Other times, they just looked young.
“We’re very far away,” Tharpe said. “If you couldn’t tell from the game. We had a lot of lapses defensively, and offensively as well. We’re still new.”