|Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart turned down the NBA this year. He will now battle KU's Andrew Wiggins for the Big 12 crown. (sportingnews.com)|
Andrew Wiggins will have the spotlight on him at Kansas this season. And not just in the Big 12, but across the country, Wiggins will be one of the biggest storylines in college basketball.
It's justifiable. Wiggins was called the best high school prospect since LeBron James. He's already being labeled as the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. His choice of Kansas sent the Jayhawks from a team predicted to be around the top-20 or top-25 mark before his announcement to a top-five squad that might challenge Kentucky after the announcement.
Wiggins' presence is shadowing another extremely hyped player south of Lawrence, Kan., who made a big decision of his own this summer. Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart was a potential top-five pick in this summer's NBA Draft as a freshman, but Smart decided to come back to school for another season. Don't mistake this move as a admittance that he wasn't talented enough. Now the Kansas freshman and OSU sophomore might be No. 1 and No. 2 in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Jan. 18 and March 1. Those are the dates Kansas and Oklahoma State (Wiggins and Smart) face off in what, as of now, looks to be a two-team battle of Goliaths for the Big 12 crown. And what a battle this will be. Oklahoma State is returning nearly its entire squad, while KU is replacing its starting five, but has one of the most talented freshman classes in the nation on campus this year.
The two players, who will share the attention in the Big 12 and nationally, will do so for different reasons.
Wiggins will have a lot of the spotlight because, for one, he is a freakishly gifted athlete, and two, people want to see what he can do at this level and if the hype is justified. The same can be said for other immensely talented freshman coming in: Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, Jabari Parker, and so on.
Everyone will be looking at Smart to see if coming back another year was worth it, and how much he improves. Smart is projected by DraftExpress as the No. 5 pick in next year's draft, behind three freshmen and an Aussie named Dante Exum. But draft stock doesn't have much of an implication when it's months before the season.
Smart was arguably one of the top 10 players in the country last season, and a CBSSports survey of coaches that asked which player they would like to have the most, the No. 1 answer was Smart at 34 percent. Wiggins was the third most-selected player behind Doug McDermott.
Smart can score. He was No. 2 in the Big 12 last season in points produced and points produced per game, only trailing Baylor's Pierre Jackson. His 15.4 ppg was good for No. 5 in the conference, as was his 4.2 assists per game. Smart is just as skilled on the defensive side, leading the Big 12 and coming in fourth and second in the NCAA, respectively, in steals and steals per game. Smart also had the second highest defensive rating, behind only Kansas shot-blocking extraordinaire Jeff Withey.
It's hard to remember that was his freshman season. Freshman go through transitional struggles and can normally be inconsistent. Look at the guy who Smart shared the attention with last year. Kansas' Ben McLemore had a tendency to get lost in games. Smart was much more consistent with the pressure of a fantastic freshman on his shoulders, and it would be surprising if he has not improved this season.
Kentucky's once again loaded freshman class will get plenty of national buzz, as will freshmen stars like Randle, Gordon and Parker. Doug McDermott might be the best scorer in the country at Creighton. But two of the best players in college basketball next year come from the Big 12, which is why everyone is circling Jan. 18 and March 1 on their calendars.
The national spotlight is big enough for two, and Wiggins and Smart are big enough stars to be in the national spotlight. Both are coming in with different circumstances, but have the same thing to prove, which is that they're worth the hype.
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