Tuesday belonged to Andrew Wiggins. The nation's top recruit created a buzz unlike any we've seen in recent years in college basketball. Before signing with Kansas, he had showed us his talent and his ability, he let the interest build, and then he kept everybody in suspense until the final hours of the signing period.
He did it on his terms and kept his word regarding his course of action. For that, Wiggins has earned our respect.
Wiggins was masterful at concealing his decision, to the point that no one could really give an educated guess regarding his college destination. And when it finally came time for his announcement, Wiggins showed considerable humility, not to mention tremendous courage. He went against the grain. Wiggins said he followed his heart and signed with Kansas.
Suddenly the college basketball season ahead feels more competitive, more intriguing and more fun – because he didn't go to Kentucky.
For all that he did, we thank Andrew Wiggins.
But let's not overlook Kansas coach Bill Self and what this moment means for him. This moment belongs to Self as well, because he won the battle – an epic battle for an elite recruit. And he got exactly what he needed for his program.
It's not right to compare Wiggins to LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant or anyone else. It's simply not fair at this point in his playing career. But purely in terms of the recruiting quest, the pursuit of Wiggins and the impact he can have, it makes his signing one of those significant moments that comes along only once every few years.
How did John Thompson feel when he signed Patrick Ewing? How did Larry Brown feel when Danny Manning said yes? It's safe to say Self understands those emotions now. Landing Wiggins will do wonders for Self's reputation, but let's face it, there was very little wrong with Self's reputation when he rolled out of bed Tuesday morning.
This development simply increased his elite status.
"He brings athleticism, length, scoring ability," Self said of Wiggins, "and he's also an assassin, an alpha dog, and we definitely need that when you have a whole bunch of young kids.
"I think he's going to be not just a good player, but has the chance to be a great one. I know the people that support our program are going to be pleasantly surprised when they see him run and play the first time he gets the opportunity."
The other finalists for Wiggins were Florida State, North Carolina and Kentucky. Top recruiting analysts repeatedly pointed out that if Wiggins had a secure relationship with any head coach, it was FSU's Leonard Hamilton. Both of Wiggins' parents were Seminole athletes. Since Wiggins kept everything so close to the vest, Florida State became a popular prediction.
But Self prevailed over Hamilton, his long-time coaching friend. And Self prevailed over North Carolina's Roy Williams, the former Kansas coach whose shadow in Lawrence continues to diminish to the point it may no longer exist. Even so, when Self wins any battle with Williams, he scores big points with KU fans.
More importantly, Self went head-to-head with Kentucky coach John Calipari and beat Calipari at his own game. For whatever reason, Self and Kansas have not fared well with players defined by the "one-and-done" era. Calipari, on the other hand, sets the standard in that department. He collects those players like trophies mounted on the wall at a hunting lodge.
This time, Self bagged the biggest catch – not Calipari. And that is significant.
In 10 years at Kansas, Self has reeled in big recruits, including Xavier Henry and Josh Selby. Both fell short of expectations and left Lawrence early, without making much of an impact. Selby, the No. 5 prospect in Scout.com's 2010 rankings, would qualify as a total flop.
It seems highly unlikely Wiggins will exit the same way. That's a gut feeling, based in large part on the way this superstar handled his recruiting. Wiggins held an old school press conference at his high school gym, surrounded by family, coaches at teammates at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep. There was no national TV feed, no bright lights, and no fiddling with the baseball caps of the final four schools.
The world learned of Wiggins' decision at 12:09 p.m. through the overloaded Twitter account of Huntington Herald-Dispatch sports writer Grant Traylor, the only media member allowed in to break the news.
Self, who had limited contact with Wiggins in the days leading up to the decision, described it as a "surreal feeling. I was so happy. It was a humble happiness." With humility at both ends of the process, that may be the first indicator that Self and Wiggins will be a great match.
Calipari didn't need Wiggins. Based on the abundance of nasty tweets that were posted Tuesday immediately after Wiggins' announcement, there were a lot of Kentucky fans in disagreement with that statement. They wished Wiggins any number of ill-fated consequences. How sad, that people in our society still behave that way.
Kentucky remains the preseason No. 1 pick with its historic recruiting class set to carry on. Wiggins could have subscribed to the Calipari method and signed with the Wildcats. But given Self's track record with improving players such as Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich and Ben McLemore, it's obvious Wiggins isn't taking a huge risk at Kansas.
dDepending on how these two young teams jell, there's a good chance now that Self and Calipari could meet in the national championship game again. Self and the Jayhawks rallied to beat Calipari's Memphis team in 2008. Four years later, Kansas made an unexpected ride to the championship game but lost to a Kentucky squad that essentially was an expansion team in the NBA.
Now that Self has denied Calipari the opportunity of hoarding all the top recruits in this class, it will be interesting to watch these men coach and teach. Remember, Kentucky had the top recruiting class in the nation last season and it didn't work out so well. The season ended with a first-round loss in the NIT, proving that nothing is guaranteed.
Calipari woke up Wednesday morning with a ton of talent on his roster – but he's still looking over his shoulder.
In 10 seasons at Kansas, Self has been to two Final Fours and won one national championship. Over that period of time, Kansas has averaged 30 wins a season and Self has led the Jayhawks to nine consecutive Big 12 championships. That's a level of consistency that no program has matched over the same time period.
|Andrew Wiggins dunking at the McDonald's All-American game|
With one sentence from the mouth of Andrew Wiggins Tuesday, Kansas went from borderline Top 25 pick in some preseason polls to national championship contender. In our poll for Fox Sports, we raised Kansas from No. 13 to No. 4. Oklahoma State and Baylor, two programs capable of breaking the Kansas streak in the Big 12, suddenly realized the Big 12 goes through Lawrence once again.
Self faces the task of replacing all five starters from last season's team that lost to Michigan in the Sweet 16. But Wiggins joins an already outstanding recruiting class that includes center Joel Embiid, forward Brannen Greene, and guards Conner Frankamp, Frank Mason and Wayne Selden. Sophomore Perry Ellis, who played so well for the Jayhawks down the stretch last season, joins Selden and Wiggins to give KU three McDonald's All-Americans on the roster.
"We had an unbelievable class when we signed Brandon [Rush], Mario [Chalmers], Julian [Wright] and Micah Downs [in 2005-06]," Self said. "That's a big-time class. This one has more upside. . . . But we need to have a great recruiting class because we lost so many guys on taeam that did pretty well this year."
Self has been through the reloading process before at Kansas, but never has done a better job than this. Wiggins praised Self and Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend when he announced his decision and that raises another point about this recruiting effort. The Jayhawks pulled this class together despite the fact that top assistants Danny Manning (Tulsa) and Joe Dooley (Florida Gulf Coast) have departed following the past two seasons.
Self doesn't miss a beat.
It has been said that Kansas caught a break when Wiggins visited Lawrence for Senior Day, always the most emotional day in Allen Fieldhouse. Recruiting skill? Recruiting luck? Recruiting always comes down to a little bit of both.
"After he left, I felt we were definitely in the game and had a shot," Self told the Lawrence Journal-World.
Wiggins' brother, Nick, will be a senior playing at nearby Wichita State next season. He listed that as a positive.
Skill? Luck? Does it really matter?
"I'm looking forward to getting there and just doing my thing," Wiggins said of KU.
And now that we know his decision, that's an emotion shared by most in college basketball – with perhaps a handful of disappointed exceptions. Don't include Bill Self in that group.
"We think he has a chance to be about as good a prospect as we've ever had," Self said.
When you are the head coach at Kansas, that's saying something.