AMES, Iowa – A little less than two hours before tipoff on Monday night, Andrew Wiggins was the last of the Kansas Jayhawks on the floor for early warm-ups, his easy strides making him an easy target. Iowa State students who earlier populated a line wrapping around Hilton Coliseum already had settled into their seats and into a simmering froth. One wore a yellow basketball on his head that nicely paired with his yellow spandex pants. He was nearest to Wiggins as the stoic freshman star emerged. The student screamed, pointing to the sphere atop his sphere with both hands. Almost undetectably, a grin infiltrated Wiggins’ standard deadpan expression, and then he stepped on to the court and went to work.
Later, after a resourceful and resilient 77-70 win over the Cyclones, the idea that Kansas’ parts somehow would never coalesce into a frightening whole seemed to be the real joke. Well before the game and more or less throughout it, the purportedly flawed and fragile Jayhawks were at ease.
They laughed both after percussive runs and bricked shot attempts in transition. The pearl-clutching over failings in the non-conference schedule overlooked just how well that schedule would prepare Kansas for the Big 12 grind, which it appears to have greeted with a shrug and a smile. And when the colossally talented parts then produce, if things don’t seem easy, they don’t seem particularly hard. And a Final Four contender takes shape.
“I would think so,” Wiggins said. “We’re practicing every day hard. The chemistry is coming together well. Before, the pieces of the puzzle weren’t really together. Now they’re coming together fluently.”
If Kansas cannot be shaken by what confronted it at Hilton – a persistent, eardrum-bursting din fueled by rage over a controversial end to things in this building a year ago – it is difficult to imagine what might. A solution followed every problem or crisis. The Jayhawks offset an unsightly 24 turnovers with a plus-17 rebounding advantage. Wiggins had a conversation with his father in which Dad emphasized how rebounding wins games, so he duly responded with 17 points and 19 boards. Joel Embiid received a first-half technical foul and a halftime scolding for playing soft, so he scored 12 of his 16 points after the break, adding three blocks and altering countless other shots, anchoring an inside-out approach that gave Kansas control. Naadir Tharpe’s consistency was challenged before the trip, so the point guard scored a career-high 23 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
Not once, at least not noticeably, did the Jayhawks look flustered or overwhelmed by the moment. After Embiid tangled with Iowa State star DeAndre Kane and whirled Kane to the floor in the first half to draw the technical, the student section predictably unleashed a “(Bleep) you Jayhawks” serenade. Near the Kansas huddle, Tharpe raised an eyebrow in surprise. Then he smiled, and nodded.
“I don’t know, maybe they’re growing up,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “The thing about it is, if you followed our team closely, you could make a case for this team probably enjoyed playing less than any other team we’ve had. At least by watching their face and things like that. But since we started conference play, I think they’re having as much fun as any team we’ve ever had. I don’t know what the reason is. Maybe they’re just growing up. But they are having fun playing.”
The Jayhawks let the Cyclones wind themselves so tight they squeezed out all the juice the expectant crowd provided. There was the matter of avenging the injustices of two regular-season losses a year ago, and there was the matter of Kane’s left ankle, sprained in a loss at Oklahoma last weekend and the subject of intense examination thereafter. Without the main turbine for one of the nation’s most potent offenses, Iowa State likely had little chance. But after the team’s shootaround, Kane’s path to a pregame meal took him by the arena’s media room, where intrepid reporters staked out position for a possible sighting. As he passed, Kane was asked if he would play against the Jayhawks. Count on it, he replied.
And indeed, an hour before the game, the emerging All-America candidate appeared for warmups, collecting a piece of candy from a courtside table and settling into his routine. Early in the game, Iowa State running sets for backdoor alley-oop passes to Kane and Kane taking a rebound coast-to-coast for a score suggested superhuman healing capacity. But he got kneed in his thigh with roughly four and a half minutes left, stifling his ability to drive to the rim with effectiveness. Wth his team trailing by seven and less than a minute to play, Kane missed two of three free throws after Embiid body-checked him on a long-distance attempt. On a dead ball after an ensuing foul, Kane untucked his jersey, pulled it over his head and bent over at the waist in agony.
“I really couldn’t cut and go how I normally want to play,” said Kane, who scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds as the Cyclones otherwise sputtered to 31.4 percent shooting overall and just 4-of-25 from three-point range. “But that’s no excuse. I played 37 minutes. I was out there enough. I didn’t do enough to help my team win. Wednesday, we’ll get back in the lab and correct this.”
Meanwhile, Kansas emerged, and the Big 12 – or anyone with designs on a national title -- cannot consider this a laughing matter. The Jayhawks maturely took control at the start of the game (a 15-4 run) and the start of the second half (a 9-0 burst). And the decisive sequence of the night involved a relatively young team knowing what was best for it.
Leading just 56-51 with 10 minutes to go, Embiid took over. He scored in the post, then swallowed a Dustin Hogue shot at the other end for one of his five blocks, then scored again along the baseline. An Iowa State turnover at the other end precipitated a transition opportunity for Wiggins, which he bricked off the backboard, only to have Jamari Traylor, well, trail and finish the play for what was an 11-point lead in a flash.
“We went through a stretch there where we finally played smart,” Self said. “We played through our bigs. Joel made unbelievable plays. His footwork is incredible for a 7-footer that’s just figuring out how to play.”
Kansas is still figuring things out, even and perhaps especially the normally stone-faced Wiggins. After knifing through defenders on that fast-break opportunity, only to clank the attempt off the glass, he walked back to the huddle for the ensuing Iowa State timeout wearing a broad smile, as if 14,384 fans had disappeared and only the freshman and his teammates were sharing the world’s most hilarious inside joke.
“We’re just comfortable,” Wiggins said. “We know as a team and a group we’re getting better every day.”
Said Tharpe: “When dudes are having fun and enjoying the time and enjoying the process, it’s much easier. You could see it out there. Wiggs is even laughing.” Everything is coming together for a team steeled for this by its non-conference struggles, more ready for this moment than anyone realized. As Iowa State made its flailing last-minute attempt to stay relevant, Hogue again drove to the hole on Wiggins, and this time the freshman was the one issuing a two-handed rejection. A sly grin broke on Wiggins’ face. When the horn sounded a short time later, a freshman with outsize expectations strapped to him before he even stepped on campus all but skipped toward his teammates with light feet, smiling at what he saw unfold.