RTC Preseason Awards: National Player and Freshman of the YearPosted by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn) on November 6th, 2013
Among the horde of talented players entering and returning to college basketball this season, arguably none of them will be more entertaining to watch than Marcus Smart and Andrew Wiggins. There are plenty of names worth tracking, to be sure. Julius Randle at Kentucky, Doug McDermott at Creighton, Russ Smith at Louisville and myriad others deserve recognition. But if forced to single out two players, two guys to follow intently from November to March, you should pick Smart and Wiggins. Rush the Court’s preseason awards panel did exactly that when it elected Smart as college basketball’s preseason National Player of the Year and Wiggins as its Freshman of the Year. But not even those awards – which, in case you weren’t aware, are the two most prestigious individual honors college basketball players can receive in the preseason – capture what will make watching Smart and Wiggins so interesting this season. They tell us that Smart and Wiggins are projected to light up college hoops with their transcendent talent, but they don’t account for the dynamic that exists between the two players. RTC panelists might not have factored this into their thinking when casting their votes, either, but I’ll attempt to lay out precisely why this interplay, this wavelength that exists between two preseason All-Americans, is going to be so fun to watch this season.
Though Wiggins will enter college basketball one season after Smart did, both will be selected in the first round of the 2014 draft. Why am I able to make that statement with such certainty? For one, Smart already admitted he will jump to the pros after this season, telling Yahoo! Sports Mark Spears in July, “It’s safe to say that if, by the grace of God I’m healthy and everything, this will be my last year at Oklahoma State.” Wiggins made nearly the same admission last month when he told ESPN The Magazine’s Elena Bergeron that two of his goals this season were to “win another championship, a national championship,” and “follow in Anthony Bennett’s footsteps of going No.1.” Wiggins also, in responding to a question about what he’s enjoyed most since arriving at Kansas, said, “I would say just being able to enjoy my last year of school.” So that just about settles it, right? Wiggins and Smart will be selected in next June’s NBA Draft, both of whom likely going in the top-half of the first round. There are a score of NBA teams that believe this draft class is so good – that believe players like Wiggins and Smart, among others, can be so transformative and uplifting at the next level – that they are actively trying to lose games to better their chances of landing one of the first few picks in the lottery. Don’t believe tanking is real? Can’t quite comprehend what all this “Riggin’ for Wiggins” nonsense is about? One acclaimed NBA Draft analyst has devoted an entire feature to categorizing the statuses of various teams’ tanking strategies. Throwing away seasons – and, in the process, willfully disregarding the interests of most fans, people who would rather not be shown an inferior product 41 nights a year and couldn’t care less about cap space and shedding payroll and smart, long-view personnel blueprints – might sound crazy, and when you really think about it, the fact the system is constructed in a way that not only does not deter, but actually encourages intentional losing, is sickening.
But if you’re a college basketball fan, and you don’t pay much attention to the NBA, you don’t care which teams are tanking or not! The realization that teams are doing it should make you giddy in one simple way. NBA teams cannot wait to get their hands on the raft of talented players flooding the college game this season. They want what they can’t have… for at least one season, which is the amount of time college hoops fans get to enjoy players like Smart and Wiggins. The latter will almost certainly be a higher draft pick, but don’t count out Smart’s chances, even amid the swath of potential franchise-changing freshmen available, of being taken in the top five. Smart was one of only two non-NBA players, along with McDermott, selected to participate in Team USA’s annual mini-camp over the summer in Las Vegas, and according to one NBA executive who spoke to Spears, Smart and McDermott “looked like they belong in practice.” Wiggins is in pole position to be selected No. 1, and Randle and Duke’s Jabari Parker are poised to unseat him should Wiggins falter, but Smart won’t be far behind in the lottery pecking order. NBA fans and general managers should be just as excited to see these players perform this season as college hoops fans are.
Big 12 Championship Race
With the possible exception of the SEC, there may be no league in the country more top-heavy than the Big 12. The league’s top two teams – Oklahoma State and Kansas – comprise their own tier of championship contention. Baylor or Iowa State could hang around the league title chase for a while, but that’s extremely unlikely. It would be a huge surprise, in other words, if Kansas or Oklahoma State does not win the Big 12 title this season. In a different respect, it would be a huge surprise if Kansas doesn’t claim the conference crown – simpy because of the way Bill Self’s team has lorded over the top of the league over the past decade. If Oklahoma State ends Kansas’ ridiculous nine-season Big 12 championship streak, it will be because Smart – with the help of a formidable supporting cast that includes guards Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and forward Michael Cobbins – elevates the Cowboys to a level not even Wiggins and the rest of the Jayhawks can match.
Kansas, mind you, brings back a capable starting five of its own. Wiggins isn’t the only reason many expect Kansas to not only notch another Big 12 title, but compete for a national championship. There’s Joel Embiid, the No. 3-ranked center in the 2013 class according to Rivals; shooting guard Wayne Selden, a player Hall of Fame writer Mike DeCourcy called “the hardest-practicing freshman I’ve encountered in more than a quarter-century on the college basketball beat”; Perry Ellis, the archetypal sophomore breakout candidate, the typical Kansas guy who, after biding his time on the bench, is primed – thanks to hard-earned practice reps – to become one of the Jayhawks’ best two-players. There are other names (on both rosters) not mentioned, but the point remains the same: These are two excellent teams that amount to far more than their high-profile superstars, and their presumptive battle for the Big 12 will be, to put it simply, awesome. Naturally, Smart and Wiggins, the most recognizable names on each team, will be the center of attention.
In an excellent story by USA Today’s Eric Prisbell about Smart’s perception of Wiggins (and the immense hype surrounding him) published last month, the Oklahoma State point guard was quoted as saying the following. “They are saying he is the best college player there is and he has not even played a game yet,” he said of Wiggins. “Of course that hypes me up. It is all talk. He still has to put his shorts on one leg at a time like I do. It is all potential. I am not saying he can’t do it. But he has not done it yet.” This is the part where you start questioning the bolded headline above, start wondering how Smart’s utterance of that quote equates to the existence of a rivalry between the two players. Here’s the thing: It doesn’t. But make no mistake, the kettle is simmering. Battle lines have been drawn. Smart and Wiggins are two supremely gifted players. They play in the same league, will face each other at least twice (and probably three times) this season. The Big 12 doesn’t have room for both of their outsized presences, their sheer statures within the college game. Smart and Wiggins aren’t just the two best players in their own conference; they are arguably the two best players in the sport. You think there’s enough column space and television time to document and praise the breadth of excellence both players are expected to produce this season? You think Twitter can handle Wiggins delivering a ferocious between-the-legs dunk and Marcus Smart beating the buzzer with a half-court shot, without imploding?
The media will prop one player up over the other, and then vice versa, the process repeating itself as the season rolls along and Smarts and Wiggins’ performance ebbs and flows – and the whole thing will become so public, so central to the content plans of all college hoops media outlets, that it will be virtually impossible to ignore. And at the end of it all, one of these guys will be regarded in slightly higher esteem. This isn’t a rivalry so much as it is a battle for college hoops fans’ collective attention. Neither Wiggins nor Smart appear to be the talkative, Terrell Owens-type attention-absorbing drama queens we all love to hate, so this will be fleshed out the good, old-fashioned way: on the court. Wiggins and Smart are striving to be the best college basketball player in the country, and both can be exactly that, but maybe neither will. The only way to settle the debate is to watch these players perform over the course of the season. Whether they bring themselves to admit it or not (Smart basically did), there is already something very personal, something distinct that can’t exist anywhere other than between two superstars inhabiting the same sport, about the way the way Smart and Wiggins will regard one another throughout the season. Wiggins hasn’t come out and offered a retort, but it’s hard to imagine Smart’s assertion – that Wiggins hasn’t proved anything yet – didn’t stoke the personal rivalry fire in Wiggins, if only slightly. The coals are smoking, and the season has yet to begin.
There isn’t much left to say. If you aren’t excited to watch these two players this season, perhaps nothing else will convince you. When there are so many talented players to track, so many budding superstars you hope to catch at least once before they join the professional ranks, maybe narrowing your focus to two guys is the best strategy. OK, that’s a big, fat lie; of course you want to watch Randle and Parker and Gary Harris of Michigan State and Aaron Gordon of Arizona and C.J. Fair of Syracuse and all the rest. But there are two players that – both because of their individual talent and the various ways they’re connected, tangentially and otherwise – seem more intriguing than the rest, and you would do well to spend lots of time this fall and winter watching them. There are plenty of reasons why this college basketball season should be one of the most entertaining in recent memory. Andrew Wiggins is one reason, and Marcus Smart is another. Together, the interest they generate will go through the roof.