Young, hungry group of Jayhawks favored along with veteran Cowboys in Big 12 this season
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Marcus Smart has a simple message for Andrew Wiggins: Prove it.
It's the same message that Smart's veteran teammates from Oklahoma State want to deliver to the young, hungry group of Jayhawks led by the prized freshman this season.
"A lot of people are saying he's the best player now in college basketball," Smart said of Wiggins during the Big 12's annual media day Tuesday. "All I'm saying is how can you be the best player in something you haven't even played yet?"
Smart is coming off a freshman season with the Cowboys that would have made him a lottery pick had he declared early for the NBA draft. Instead, he chose to return to coach Travis Ford's team so that Oklahoma State could make a run at dethroning the Jayhawks in the Big 12.
The Cowboys would have been the odds-on favorites to accomplish it, too, had Wiggins not joined an already loaded recruiting class. The consensus No. 1 player in last year's class made his declaration to Kansas late in the process, and it sent a shockwave through the league.
Now, the Big 12's coaches have tabbed Oklahoma State and Kansas as co-favorites.
"I'm not saying he can't be the best player," said Smart, who is familiar with Wiggins from the AAU circuit and various national team competitions over the years.
"I know if it was me," Smart said, "don't just give it to me. At least make me earn it. All the hype, good for him. Congratulations to him, don't get me wrong. I'm not taking anything away from Andrew Wiggins, anything like that. He's a good player. I hope he does well."
Just not when the Cowboys face the Jayhawks this season.
"If he's the best player like people say, if that's the case, in order for me to be the best, I have to beat the best, right?" Smart said with a straight face. "If he's the best player, fans will get their money's worth when we play Kansas."
Wiggins has taken all of the hype, which included a Sports Illustrated cover comparing him to former Jayhawks stars Danny Manning and Wilt Chamberlain, with a shoulder shrug. In fact, his low-key temperament almost makes it seem as if he's bored by all the attention.
The truth is that he's never craved the spotlight. He's had to learn to accept it, surely, but he'd rather lace up his sneakers and step onto the floor without saying a single word.
"It kind of grew on me over the years to where I'm used to it," Wiggins said. "I just think of it as a blessing. A lot of people don't get an opportunity to be showcased like that."
Smart and Wiggins are in some ways microcosms of their teams.
Smart leads a team that returns its top four scorers and seven of its top eight from a year ago, including sharpshooter Markel Brown and swingman Le'Bryan Nash. That means the Cowboys, who finished a game behind the Jayhawks in last year's Big 12 race, promise to be one of the nation's most experienced teams after winning 24 games and reaching the NCAA tournament last season.
Wiggins is the headliner of a freshman class at Kansas that includes five-star prospects Wayne Selden and Joel Embiid, all of whom have the potential to turn pro after this season. Selden is a physical, 6-foot-5 guard whom coach Bill Self said has been in the best player in practice so far, while Embiid is a raw 7-footer from Cameroon who has only been playing for two years.
"Even without Andrew Wiggins, I still thought they were the team to beat," Ford said. "I knew who they had, who they had returning. They're still Kansas, no question, and then they added that piece, no question it made it a little more difficult for everybody."
That's not to say there aren't other teams that could factor into the Big 12 race.
Kansas State tied the Jayhawks for a share of the regular-season title last year. Texas has plenty of experience returning, as does Iowa State. Texas Tech is under new leadership in the form of Tubby Smith. Baylor could be the best of all of them.
"Kansas, Oklahoma State and Baylor are understandably at the top of preseason expectations," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said, "but there's great balance. It will be an interesting race."