Up and Down and Unfair: Embiid, Wiggins, and Kansas in 2014

You can’t walk into Allen Fieldhouse without being a little blown away that an arena like this even exists anymore. The windows at the top of the gym make you feel like you’re in the 1970s. The wooden bleachers make you feel like it’s the 1950s. Then you look up, and the championship banners go back to the 1920s.

I was walking around Pauley Pavilion at UCLA a few weeks ago, and it was great — the food trucks lining the outdoor concourse were particularly awesome — but it wasn’t 100 years of basketball history crammed into one sturdy old basketball church of a building.

I’d wanted to go to Kansas to see a game for a while now. It’s been on my bucket list since college, and maybe even high school. Too many people have raved about the entire experience — the fans, the stadium, the town of Lawrence — for me to not make it there. Saturday it finally happened for a game between no. 15 KU and no. 9 Oklahoma State.

The gym was half-full with students 90 minutes before tipoff, and the crowd was buzzing. Or booing, technically. After quick bursts of cheers for Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid when they came out for warm-ups, there were much louder boos for Marcus Smart when he emerged from the tunnel. College hoops is so much more fun in person. When you’re surrounded by college kids with painted chests harassing someone like Smart at the top of their lungs — while Smart bobs up and down loving every second of it — it’s impossible not to love this sport.

On TV, college games can be harder to love, full of stupid charging calls, bad turnovers, and painful stretches of clueless offense. In person, the raw energy of a big game renders all that irrelevant.

After about an hour of players warming up and the stadium slowly filling to capacity, it was time for the pregame rituals. A chorus of the alma mater had the student section locking arms and swaying as they all sang. That gave way to the whole stadium chanting “Rooooooooock Chaaaaaaaalk Jayyyyyyyhaaaaaaawk, K-UUUUUUUUUUU” in a way that would make any outsider think they’d stumbled into some sort of sacred religious gathering. Which isn’t really wrong. (Click here to listen.)

Next, Paul Pierce was on the Jumbotron welcoming us to “Witness the nation’s biggest home-court advantage” and warning us to “Beware of the Phog,” kicking off a highlight video that spanned at least six decades of Kansas basketball being awesome. From Clyde Lovellette to Wilt to Danny Manning to Mario Chalmers. (“Mario’s Miracle” got the loudest cheer of any highlight, by far. Kansas is the one place on earth where Mario Chalmers is every bit as big a name as LeBron James.)

Then it was time for 16,000 people to lose their mind. The PA blared some sort of techno anthem, the Jumbotron panned the crowd displaying a decibel meter that eventually hit 115, and the whole building vibrated for a solid two minutes before tipoff. When the game got started and the stadium finally calmed down for a minute, the 12-year-old sitting next to me said, “Holy COW, that was loud.”

He turned to his mom behind him: “I think my ears are bleeding.”

Swaying student sections. Creepy religious chants. Minds being lost. Ears bleeding. That’s how you start a basketball game. This is why I’d always wanted to come to Kansas.

♦♦♦

What finally brought me here had nothing to do with any of that. It was the prospect of watching Wiggins, Embiid, and Smart. The prospect of watching prospects, basically. Any of them could play in the NBA now, and all of them will be top-10 (probably top-five) picks in this year’s draft. Seeing them in a big game was too good to pass up.

In some ways, this is screwed-up logic. A matchup between two Final Four contenders should be enough to have me lobbying bosses to send me here. Anyone who loves basketball shouldn’t need NBA potential to convince to them to visit Allen Fieldhouse. That place is like Hoosier Gym, but with stacked Kansas teams that would blow some crappy Hickory High team off the court, and fans that will make your ears bleed. It’s the platonic ideal of college basketball.

But none of it was ever enough to hop on a flight to the middle of the country and drive an hour from Kansas City to Lawrence. Wiggins and Embiid — “Wiggs” and “Jo,” as Bill Self calls them — changed all that. Having those guys on the same team this season is what took me from “should go to Kansas” one day to “must go to Kansas” as soon as possible.

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Oklahoma State v Kansas

The game began and both teams started slowly. After the cult chants and the ear-bleeding pre-tipoff apocalypse, this was probably a good thing for everyone’s sanity.

But after about 10 minutes of back and forth on the way to Kansas leading 16-15, all hell got unleashed, and Kansas fans got to see what it looks like when everything clicks for this Jayhawks team. Layups and dunks and 3s filled a 13-0 run, punctuated by Tarik Black doing his best impersonation of the old Shaq Reebok logo on a fast break.

That dunk sent Allen Fieldhouse right back into apocalypse mode, which ended with both teams shoving each other in a mess of bodies by the Kansas sideline. Even as Oklahoma State fought back, Kansas was too big, too fast, and too deep across the board. Wiggins only had three points, and the Jayhawks’ leading scorer — sophomore Perry Ellis — only had four, but it was still a 17-point game by halftime. When Kansas plays well, there are seven or eight players who can help blow you off the court at any given time.

In the second half? Everything flipped. Suddenly all the Kansas talent forgot how to get shots on offense and they turned it over 14 times, while Oklahoma State got hot from 3 and turned it into a close game. The Cowboys’ run was led by sophomore guards Smart and Phil Forte, a lights-out shooter from Texas.

As Self said of Forte afterward, “The kid is just in love with the game. He’ll take a thousand shots a day just to make the one. Just to make the one.”

Note: This is exactly the kind of scrappy white kid who college basketball fans have been falling in love with for the past 50 years. He hit seven 3s Saturday.

The game ended with Forte and Smart scoring 12 points in the final 1:41, including a massive 3 from Forte to bring Oklahoma State within one with six seconds left. But the Cowboys couldn’t get a good look at the game winner, so Kansas pulled it out, its third consecutive victory over a ranked team.

After the game, a reporter asked Kansas junior Naadir Tharpe whether the locker room felt a sense of accomplishment or relief. “Accomplishment,” he said. “Definitely.”

The reporter asks Self the same question. “No, no, no, it’s a sense of relief.”

On the second half: “We played ridiculously, uh, ridiculous on offense.”

♦♦♦

Noticeably absent for most of the game — and hard to notice when he was out there — was Andrew Wiggins. He spent a lot of his time doing that thing where he floats on the perimeter, pump-fakes, and then swings it back around to a point guard. He was on the bench for most of that first-half run, he only took four shots, and he played 23 total minutes. This came after he went for 22 and five in a win over Kansas State, then 17 and 19 in a win on the road against no. 8 Iowa State.

Before the game he was asked why he’s been more assertive lately, and he said, “I’m being more aggressive, driving to the basket, taking good shots, getting my teammates involved.”

He didn’t do anything like that against Oklahoma State. This isn’t an indictment of Wiggins, but more just a reminder that he’s 18 years old, and not necessarily the kind of superhuman 18-year-old we were told to expect before he committed to Kansas, where he was likely to stay one year and become the no. 1 pick in the 2014 draft.

The night before the Oklahoma State game, I was in my hotel room watching Kevin Durant go into Jesus mode in the fourth quarter against the Warriors. He finished with 54 points, reminding everyone that we’re watching one of the greatest players ever playing in his prime. While I watched all this I was also reading up on Wiggins. One article: “Kevin Durant says Andrew Wiggins has ‘Hall of Famer, All-Star’ potential.

Durant’s actual comments were a little more grounded in reality (“He’s raw, but his ceiling is high”), but people have been twisting that idea into “Hall of Fame” headlines for the past 18 months.

Except lately, the tenor of headlines has changed from “When Andrew Wiggins Goes Pro, He Could Receive A Bigger Sneaker Deal Than LeBron James” to “Is Andrew Wiggins the clear no. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft? Not so fast, scouts say.

The truth about Wiggins is that it’ll be impossible to separate what he is from what he’s supposed to be for the next five years, and probably longer. He will be a disappointment to all kinds of different people who want something more, ignoring what’s actually there.

If you blame the media for this, you’re not wrong, but that’s really only part of it. Sometimes there are players who seem like they could dominate whenever they want, but they don’t, and people drive themselves crazy wondering why. Wiggins is one of those players who will drive people crazy.

There will always be games like Oklahoma State for Wiggins. He’s more Harrison Barnes at North Carolina than Kevin Durant at Texas. But he’s also more athletic than either of those guys, and there’s enough raw talent so that he’ll impact games with defense and rebounding regardless of what happens with his scoring.

He may not always dominate games, but he’s still capable of being a key part of dominant teams, blending in some nights, breaking out others. Isn’t that what’s happening at Kansas this year?

If Wiggins can’t be Durant, maybe he can guard him.

♦♦♦

EMBIID-SIGN

On the opposite end of the disappointment spectrum? Joel Embiid. Jo-EL Em-BEED. Learn the name. Learn to love it. He’s why Kansas won that second half Saturday.

Embiid had 11 points and five blocks and played the all of the final 20 minutes. He sent a Smart layup flying to almost half court. He caught alley-oops. He passed to others for alley-oops. He scored in the post. And then he went back to destroying shots at the rim (he finished with eight blocks). The longer this season goes, the more impossible it becomes to imagine anyone else going no. 1 in the draft.

Asked about his impact afterward, Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said, “When you have eight [blocks], I’d say he probably made a difference. He came from the weak side a couple times and made some nice blocks when we’d thought we’d gotten in a seam. It wasn’t always just him sitting in there waiting on us, he came from nowhere a couple times.”

Then he broke character for a second. “Goodness, he’s so talented.”

“He’s so good.”

As for Embiid himself, he speaks with a heavy accent, and he’s the absolute best. Almost every time he answered a postgame question next to his teammates, he looked like he was about to break down in laughter (it only happened once, when someone asked him about getting too many technicals, and eventually the entire room broke out laughing). Otherwise, he’s as bashful and introverted as you’d expect from any 18-year-old kid who went from anonymity in Cameroon to superstardom in Kansas.

“I always have the same mind-set,” he told a room full of reporters. “Do my job. Rebound, block shots, get position in the lane, and try to score, so … When I go, before every game, just do my job.”

When Self entered a little later, I asked if he saw this coming. To outsiders looking at Kansas, Wiggins was the superstar on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the heir to Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas. Embiid was supposed to be the mysterious project that could maybe dominate in a few years. Given all that, Self looked like a prophet: “I thought he would be great. I thought Jo could be the best big man in the country. This year.”

“He’s obviously a great talent,” he added. “We need to play through him a lot more.”

Later: “I told Joel, as soon as he stepped foot on campus, you’re going to be the no. 1 pick. I’m not saying he will be this year, but if he stays, and he comes out and times it right, then he could be the no. 1 pick in the draft.”

I’m pretty sure the timing will work just fine this June.

♦♦♦

godfather-ku

There have been a lot of times this season when Kansas looked like an AAU team playing against high school teams. That’s not a compliment, but it’s not a criticism either. In college basketball, the AAU label carries all kinds of evil, me-first, fundamentals-last connotations, but in Kansas’s case it’s just the easiest way to describe what they are: a team full of talented older guys and incredibly talented younger guys who haven’t played very much together. Self may have more to work with, but he’s also gotta work harder to make any of this work.

This isn’t a new challenge for big-time college basketball teams, but it’s pretty crazy to see it all unfold in Lawrence. At least it was for me after gawking at the history for two hours before the game started. Nothing screams “2014” in college hoops more than this Kansas team, and nothing screams “1955” more than Allen Fieldhouse.

Really, nobody in the country has a deeper connection to basketball’s black-and-white past than Kansas does. The first team at KU was literally organized by James Naismith in 1898, for God’s sake. He gave way to Phog Allen, who would go on to coach Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp, who started dynasties of their own at Kentucky and UNC. The college game grew so quickly it became an Olympic sport in the 1930s. Then there were professional leagues, then the NBA, and then both the NBA and NCAA spent the next 50 years slowly taking over America. You can trace it all back to Kansas.

If Allen Fieldhouse on Naismith Drive in Lawrence, Kansas, feels like it’s sacred ground, it really kind of is.

This year: Kansas’s success depends on stars who are more famous for what they might do whenever they leave Kansas, and the sacred ground feels more like a stepping stone.

This is what stuck with me once the crowd calmed down and the game started. If you see the disjointed play and NBA obsession as an affront to everything college basketball’s supposed to be, having it happen in the college basketball mecca might seems like blasphemy.

But all of that’s stupid. For two reasons. First, there’s no better tribute to the tradition Naismith started than a Kansas team whose biggest stars are from Wichita, Ontario, and Cameroon. This has gone from Kansas scheduling games against local YMCAs 100 years ago to drawing stars from all over the world.

At the same time, you may miss out on the experience of watching a cohesive team develop over a few years, but it’s just as much fun to watch stars from Wichita, Ontario, and Cameroon come together over the course of a season and learn to dominate. That’s just as close to what college basketball’s supposed to be.

Watching this Kansas team will drive you crazy sometimes, definitely. But then Embiid or Wiggins will start being incredible, and it’s all worth it.

There will be ups and downs with all these guys, and when it gets ugly, people will sneer that that’s the price of doing business with freshmen who have one foot in the NBA before they ever play a game. But there will be a lot of games like Saturday, when there’s so much talent that it doesn’t matter. There was the polished superstar who came back to school, Marcus Smart, and the perfect college hero, Phil Forte, and they couldn’t do a thing with Joel Embiid.

As the season goes on and the teams gets better, this will happen more and more. Playing in front of those fans in apocalypse mode, beneath rafters full of banners, all of it will look increasingly unfair. And that’s probably how we’ll remember Wiggins and Embiid in college basketball whenever this year ends. Up and down and ultimately unfair against college kids.

Kansas isn’t the only school to bet huge on superhuman prodigies fitting in alongside a bunch of mortal college teammates. Think about where the biggest stars have wound up lately — Kentucky, Duke, UCLA, North Carolina.

The schools with the greatest traditions have bought into this awkward new future more than anyone, and that trend at the top hints at the most honest thing you can say about Embiid and Wiggins and any other superstar freshman in college basketball. Playing this game with these players isn’t the price of doing business; it’s more like being rich.

Filed Under: College Basketball, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State, Kansas University

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Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp