PLAYER OF THE YEAR, FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR: KANSAS’ ANDREW WIGGINS
No player in Big 12 history has arrived on the men’s college basketball scene under a more glaring spotlight than Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins.
The Ontario native was the nation’s No. 1 ranked player out of West Virginia’s Huntington Prep, and made the cover of Sports Illustrated before he even played his first game for the Jayhawks this season.
Such massive hype would crush some freshmen, but not Wiggins. He’s thrived under intense scrutiny, and has been a big reason why the Jayhawks are a national championship contender.
Wiggins is the Tribune-Herald’s Big 12 player of the year and freshman of the year on the 2014 men’s basketball team.
“There’s no way Andrew could have been totally prepared for the hype,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “He didn’t do anything to create the hype except playing basketball. Considering he should be a high school senior, he’s handled it beautifully.”
Wiggins is expected to be one of the top picks in this year’s NBA draft if he chooses to declare after one season in college basketball. It’s easy to see why he’s such a hot prospect: He’s a 6-8 guard who can glide to the basket, bury 3-pointers and play terrific defense.
Wiggins finished ninth in the Big 12 with a 16.8 scoring average while pulling down 5.9 rebounds per game during the regular season. He shot 34.5 percent from 3-point range while chipping in 1.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game.
Both his skills and athleticism blow opposing coaches away.
“His athletic ability is freakish,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Normally people his size don’t have his speed and quickness. Offensively, he’s very talented and skilled, and can shoot the 3 and take it off the bounce. He gotten stronger and can finish better with contact. He could be an all-defensive performer in the NBA for a decade.”
West Virginia saw just how explosive Wiggins can be when he busted loose for 41 points in the regular season finale in Morgantown. Though the Mountaineers pulled off a 92-86 win, Wiggins hit 12 of 18 field goals and 15 of 19 free throws.
“When he makes perimeter shots like that, he’s impossible to guard,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “The first time we played him, the best thing he did was defend. But obviously, he came in here and got 41. He rebounds and is so quick off his feet that he makes plays most people can’t make.”
Though Wiggins puts up a superb stat line almost every game, he works well within the Jayhawks’ team framework.
“Andrew is a good teammate first, and the individual stuff doesn’t register with him,” Self said. “He just wants to win. He’s driving the ball better, and has shot the ball pretty well. He’s impacting the game athletically in a majority of the games.”
DEFENDER OF THE YEAR: KANSAS’ JOEL EMBIID
With Joel Embiid in the lineup, Kansas is one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Without the gifted 7-0 freshman center, the Jayhawks are much more vulnerable.
Embiid is the Tribune-Herald’s defensive player of the year for a variety of reasons: Shot blocking ability, rebounding and athleticism.
“He’s as important to us defensively as anybody on any respective team,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I really believe when he’s healthy and playing well, he has the potential to impact both ends of the floor as much as any player in the country. We can play through him offensively and he plays great around the rim defensively, and is a great rebounder.”
Due to a back injury, Embiid missed the final two games of the regular season and the Big 12 tournament. Self hopes to have Embiid back by the Sweet 16 if the Jayhawks advance that far in the NCAA tournament.
Embiid tied for fourth in the Big 12 with 8.1 rebounds per game and was second behind Baylor’s Isaiah Austin with 2.6 blocks per game. The Jayhawks showed how much they missed Embiid in their regular season-ending loss to West Virginia as point guard Juwan Staten repeatedly drove to the basket.
“Embiid blocks shots and changes everything in the lane,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “He changes everything around the rim. Juwan had an easier run at the rim.”
A native of Cameroon, Embiid has been playing basketball only since he was 16. Though he’s still raw in some areas, he’s progressed quickly. But his impact on Kansas’ defense is immeasurable.
“They need Joel out there in the stretch run to put them in a situation where they’re capable of winning the whole thing,” TCU coach Trent Johnson said.
COACH OF THE YEAR: OKLAHOMA’S LON KRUGER
Lon Kruger is the only coach in Division I history to take five different teams to the NCAA tournament.
When Oklahoma hired him before the 2011 season, school officials thought he was the man to change the course of the program.
By his second year, Kruger had the Sooners in the NCAA tournament with a 20-win season. They’ve been even better in his third year as they ended the regular season with a 23-8 record and finished second in the Big 12 with a 12-6 mark.
Picked fifth in the league, Kruger pushed the Sooners to greater heights than most people expected this season in the nation’s No. 1-rated conference.
“At the heart of it, we’re a young group,” Kruger said. “I didn’t know how we’d respond, but we’ve shot the ball well and have improved a lot defensively, and we got a bit more physical.”
The Sooners lost their top three scorers from last year, including Romero Osby, Steven Pledger and Amath M’Baye. But sophomore guard Buddy Hield stepped up to average 16.8 points per game while senior Cameron Clark averaged 15.2 during the regular season.
Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler averaged 9.9 points and a league-high 9.4 rebounds while sophomore guard Isaiah Cousins averaged 11 points. Freshman point guard Jordan Woodard has averaged 10.3 points while ranking sixth in the Big 12 with 4.6 assists per game.
“Lon has done an unbelievable job,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “They lost their entire front line from last year. But they’ve had some young kids like Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins come in there and do a great job. But Lon is always going to do a good job.”
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: IOWA STATE’S DeANDRE KANE
When DeAndre Kane graduated from Marshall University last spring, he immediately became eligible to transfer without having to sit out a season.
The lucky school was Iowa State.
If there was ever a transfer ready to excel, it was Kane who averaged at least 15 points per game in each of his three seasons at Marshall.
Kane has put up even bigger numbers as Iowa State’s point guard as he averaged 17.1 points and 6.7 rebounds while tying West Virginia’s Juwan Staten for the Big 12 lead in assists with 5.9 per game. He’s been a big reason why the Cyclones have been one of the best teams in the Big 12 and nationally ranked most of the year.
“Look at his numbers and you can see he’s put up one of the most successful seasons in the history of Iowa State basketball,” Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Not many people in college basketball put up those numbers. But he’s got a team first mentality, and that’s what you’ve got to have with the ball in your hand.”
Standing 6-4, Kane can see over defenders to distribute the ball and has the quickness to slice through opponents. If teammates aren’t open, he’s a dangerous scoring threat, and is strong and aggressive enough to battle for rebounds.
“When your point guard can rebound like that, it really helps the transition game,” Hoiberg said. “He’s difficult to guard, and has the ability to post up. He can also go by guys and can knock down shots at a pretty good clip. He can deliver the on-target pass on time. It makes your job a lot easier with a guy who has that kind of versatility on the offensive end.”
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: OKLAHOMA STATE’S PHIL FORTE
Anybody who thought Phil Forte got a scholarship to Oklahoma State because he was the high school teammate of Marcus Smart missed the point.
Forte is a tremendous player in his own right.
The sharp-shooting guard finished the regular season ranked second in the Big 12 behind Baylor’s Brady Heslip with a 45.2 3-point shooting percentage. The sophomore also made the second most 3-pointers in the league with 90 while tying Baylor’s Kenny Chery with a league best 86.7 free throw percentage.
Forte came off the bench for the Cowboys for the first 23 games before moving into the starting lineup for the last eight games of the regular season. He averaged 13.2 points and showed more versatility as the season progressed.
“Phil came in known as a big time shooter, and he’s very good at it,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “But he affects the game in so many other ways with steals and getting to loose balls and rebounding. He might not be the tallest or most athletic player, but he has great toughness.”