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Wiggins puts suspense back in season
At 12:09 p.m. ET Tuesday in a high school gymnasium in West Virginia, Bill Self saved college basketball.
Self was a time zone away, but that was the moment when 18-year-old Andrew Wiggins, the best high school player since Kevin Durant and perhaps even LeBron James, stood before his high school classmates at St. Joseph Central Catholic School and, in the least LeBron-y move ever — only one news reporter — announced where he’d be attending college.
Instead of joining a recruiting class with a record six McDonald’s All-Americans at John Calipari’s Kentucky program for a one-year stopover before heading to the NBA, Wiggins decided to take his paradigm-shifting talents to Kansas and turn Self’s team into an immediate national title contender.
Are college basketball fans losing out on something special, on Calipari’s already historic recruiting class becoming a college hoops all-star team for the ages, one that would warrant discussion for a possible undefeated season? Are we cheated out of a Kentucky team we would talk about for generations?
Hardly. What Wiggins decided on — and what Self accomplished in out-recruiting the best recruiter in college basketball — is good for Wiggins, great for Kansas and absolutely fantastic for college basketball.
Because, really: Who wants college basketball to have its equivalent of Alabama in college football?
Wiggins heading to Kentucky would have given the Wildcats a juggernaut. They already have six of the top 21 recruits of the 2013 class, according to Scout.com rankings, including three of the top five: guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison and power forward Julius Randle.
Big Blue haters who laughed at last season’s NIT disaster would have shuddered when that team, which also returns such NBA-caliber players as Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, took the floor.
The best part about college basketball is that it has more parity than any American sport. A couple 18-year-olds can change a program’s fortunes, lift a team from also-ran — Kansas was a fringe top-20 team before Wiggins’ signing — to contender.
Less than two weeks ago, Wiggins was tweeting photos of himself from his high school prom, but on Tuesday he made a decision that turns next year in college basketball into a slugfest at the top.
Kentucky without Wiggins will still be the preseason No. 1, but the gulf between Nos. 1 and 2 won’t be nearly as wide. Wiggins immediately vaults an inexperienced Kansas team — last year’s Elite Eight squad lost all five starters, but Wiggins is joining what was already thought of as perhaps Self’s finest recruiting class — into national title contention, alongside defending champ Louisville, Michigan State, Duke (which signed Jabari Parker, the No. 2 recruit in this class) and Arizona.
Remember that Mario Chalmers 3-pointer that stole the national championship out of Calipari’s hands five years ago when he was at Memphis and gave Self his first national championship? A day before the signing deadline, Wiggins’ announcement to spurn Calipari for Self was the recruiting equivalent of that Chalmers dagger, and college basketball fans should join Jayhawks fans in celebration.
Yes, Wiggins spurned two other schools in addition to Kentucky. He said no to the basketball history of North Carolina and to the familial ties at Florida State, where his father (former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins) and his mother (Canadian sprinter and two-time Olympic silver medalist Marita Payne-Wiggins) went to school. But the story here is that Self — a coach who always has very good recruiting classes but has never coached a transcendent college player who went on to NBA superstardom — beat Calipari, the slick operator and master salesman who runs an NBA factory out of Rupp Arena.
Some will chide Wiggins’ decision, saying that the best NBA player Self coached was, what, Mario Chalmers? The Morris twins? There have been plenty more not-quite-NBA players under Self (like former prize recruit Josh Selby, or last year’s No. 5 NBA pick Thomas Robinson, who averaged less than five points and five rebounds per game his rookie year) than success stories. Self might be the best coach-you-up man in college basketball but has never produced the type of player who makes NBA All-Star Games. It’s an unfair but true storyline that’s dogged Self on the recruiting trail when he’s chasing top recruits.
But there is such thing as a sure thing. Wiggins will be different than all the players Self has coached. Wiggins, whom some have called the Canadian Jordan, is a freakish athlete. He has a sprinter’s speed (thanks mom), an NBA star’s 44-inch vertical leap (thanks dad), and a 7-foot-plus wingspan. He is an elite perimeter defender who will immediately be the best in college hoops at getting to the basket.
I asked Scout.com recruiting analyst Evan Daniels, who has seen Wiggins play since eighth grade, what Wiggins’ game is missing. All he could come up with was that he doesn’t have a mid-range game and isn’t an elite shooter, both things that will come with time, especially under Self’s tutelage. The comparisons have been to Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady.
So Bill Self and Kansas basketball won the lottery when last year’s Gatorade National Player of the Year picked Lawrence over Lexington. But so did all of college basketball. Because in order for college basketball to win — in order for the result of the coming season to be something other than predetermined — John Calipari had to lose.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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