Those who are predicting the early demise of the Kansas Jayhawks in the NCAA tournament because of center Joel Embiid’s injury may want to rethink their bracket selections. As the saying goes, “Man down, next man up.”
The man who now has to shoulder an even heavier load for Bill Self’s team during March Madness is freshman sensation and scoring machine Andrew Wiggins, who as my colleague Michael Kaskey-Blomain explained yesterday (Via ESPN.com’s Chad Ford) is a propsect that the 76ers front office holds in high regard.
And for those of you have been living under the Ben Franklin Bride recently — Wiggins has been simply unstoppable in the month of March.
First, a regular season and Big 12 Tournament recap: Kansas and company were handed a loss in their final regular season game at West Virginia 92-86. If I told you before the game that Wiggins would have 41 points and the Jayhawks would still lose, you wouldn’t believe me.
Yet, somehow this sequence of events did take place and yes Kansas lost but this 41 point game needs to be talked about. Wiggins didn’t just fill up the scoring column either, he also added eight rebounds, five steals, four blocks and two assists. 41 points, 8 rebounds, 5 steals, 4 blocks and two assists. Sorry, I had to wrap my head around it again. So how did Wiggins take over this game versus the fighting sweat pants? There isnt actually just one area that you can attribute this monster performance to.
Wiggins shot 12-18 from the field to go along with 15-19 from the free throw line. What you can draw from those two statistics is that Wiggins couldn’t miss and if he did, it meant he was most likely going to the line due to a foul. Even with this career high performance it still didn’t matter. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was simply to motivated to earn his 25,000 dollar bonus from beating Kansas in the regular season.
The commencement of Kansas’s post season would begin against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament. Wiggins showed no memory of the tough loss at West Virginia and proceeded to have another fantastic game with 30 points on 9-17 shooting to go along with 8 rebounds and 3 assists. When the game was tight late Wiggins made an unbelievable step back jumper to tie things up and push the contest into overtime where the Jayhawks would eventually win 77-70.
After the game Wiggins opened up about the clutch shot “They cut off the base line, and step-back is one of my main moves, and it just fell through.”
The Jayhawks Big 12 tournament run would end in their next game at the hands of Iowa Stae, 94-83. Wiggins pitched in with 22 points in a slightly off shooting performance going 7-21 from the field. Perry Ellis had a great game as well with 30 points but it wasn’t enough to get past the Cyclones. Not having Embiid showed defensively as evidenced through Kansas giving up a combined 56 points to the Cyclones front court.
After the last three games it is clear that the tournament hopes for Kansas are pinned on one player, Wiggins. When the NCAA tournament kicks off this Thursday you can bet that Wiggins’s average number of shots per game will be wildly lower than his shot volume during “The Dance”. Without Embiid the Jayhawks still have talent but in order for them to beat teams down the stretch it has to be Wiggins that comes through in the clutch.
Before the conference tournament game versus Oklahoma State coach Self opened up, “I thought coming in that we needed to try to change him and change him in a way where he was outwardly, visibly more energetic, passionate, because he is a stone face on the court.”
That change has come in the form of Wiggins’s stats rather than his attitude. No. 22 is averaging 31 points per game in his past three contests but not so much has changed in his demeanor. In an article written by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf earlier this week, Medcalf pointed out that America is having trouble connecting with Wiggins because he is not as outspoken as current NBA superstars like Lebron James. That is not a bad thing either. Rather than talking trash or making excuses, Wiggins is letting his game speak for itself in an MJ like fashion.
What’s left following the Jayhawks Big 12 tournament loss to Iowa State, is a record including the most wins vs ranked opponentsand a #2 seed in the South region of the “Big Dance.” The top six seeds in the South bracket are Florida, Kansas, Syracuse, UCLA, VCU and Ohio State, respectively. A stacked deck of quality teams.
My round by round analysis has Kansas beating a tough New Mexico team in the third round before they have any real trouble. In the Sweet Sixteen, Syracuse’s legendary 2-3 zone could give the Jayhawks fits including Wiggins.. Im not sure the Jayhawks have the type of team to bust up a zone from shooting the ball so that game may come down to defense and offensive rebounding. If Kansas does get past the Orange, it is a strong bet they will then play the number one overall seed Florida in the Elite Eight. Florida beat Kansas pretty handily in Gainesville back in December and with the potential of center Embiid not being available, that could be the end of the Jayhawks run.
By no means are Kansas short on talent just because Embiid is out with more than capable back up Tarik Black filling in. Actually this just frees up the lottery pick even more on the offensive end and head coach Bill Self knows it.
A lot of analysts like to peg Jayhawks point guard NaadirTharpe as the X-factor of this squad but that is a misconception that has led to losses this year. Similar conclusions were made about NC State’s squad but it wasn’t until eventual ACC player of the year TJ Warren started taking over that the Wolfpack turned its season around. I believe the same is true for Kansas. If the Jayhawks want to beat Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen, it will be on Wiggins to open up different aspects of the game. If Wiggins can attack the boards and score in transition, I can almost guarantee it will have a bigger effect than if Tharpe simply makes half of his shots.
A potential Florida match up looms. Florida’s point guard Scottie Wilbekin is the best point guard defender in the country so I don’t envision Tharpe as the one to win that game. If you look back to these teams previous match up in December, it wasn’t until Wiggins took over late that the game even became remotely close. Furthermore, it will be on Wiggins to shut down the Gators leading scorer Casey Prather.
Team ball counts for a lot but when it comes down to the big games, it’s the match ups that decide who gets the glory in March. For Kansas, those potential match ups fall in Wiggins favor so it’s time to see what the projected lottery pick has formed into and just what type of game he will be bringing to the NBA.
If you want a shot at the “Oracle of Omaha”, Warren Buffett’s one billion kitty for a perfect bracket, heed my advice. Who are we kidding, once I secure the one billion dollars I will buy the Sixers myself. We will discuss what I do as the new Sixers owner in an open forum next month.
Alex Gorge is a scribe for Philadunkia. You can follow him on Twitter @apg3000.
You can follow us on Twitter @philadunkia.