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January 18, 2014

Smart vs Wiggins as Oklahoma St visits Kansas

Lawrence, Kan. — It’s been a few months since Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins and Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart stood on the floor of the Sprint Center and posed for some fairly awkward photographs.

It was during the Big 12’s annual media day in Kansas City, shortly before the start of the season. The two favorites for player of the year were paired up for some promotional pictures just a few minutes after Smart said Wiggins had yet to deserve his considerable hype.

“A lot of people are saying he’s the best player now in college basketball,” Smart said then. “All I’m saying is how can you be the best player in something you haven’t even played yet?”

Well, both have had chances to show everyone what they can do. They’ll get a chance to show each other when Smart leads the ninth-ranked Cowboys into Allen Fieldhouse to face Wiggins and No. 15 Kansas today in the first of two regular-season showdowns.

“A lot of people took their own opinions to that statement I made,” Smart said this week. “I’m not really here to talk about that. This team has a lot on their minds, a lot on their plate to get ready for Saturday against a great team and a great coach and a great crowd.”

Smart and Wiggins have both burnished their credentials this season.

Smart is averaging 17.9 points, and 22 points and nearly 11 rebounds over his last three games. He had 39 points in a win over Memphis earlier this season, and is the biggest reason Oklahoma State (15-2, 3-1 Big 12) has been among the nation’s most consistent teams.

“The thing that amazes me about him is he impacts an entire program from a personality standpoint,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who watched Smart have two of his best games against the Jayhawks last season. “He’s been great in that regard.”

Wiggins, meanwhile, is averaging 15.8 points and more the six boards a game. And the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit a year ago has excelled in the most high-profile games, his scoring average spiking to nearly 20 points when the Jayhawks (12-4, 3-0) have faced another ranked team.

“Extremely talented,” said Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford. “One of the best finishers in all of basketball when it comes to fast break. And I said all of basketball. I’m including now, the next level, anybody. There’s probably not 10 other players even in the NBA that can finish on the break like he can finish. He’s special.”

Leave the platitudes to the coaches, though.

Smart has had his say on Wiggins — and Wiggins certainly heard him.

“It’s just someone’s opinion. It doesn’t mean anything,” Wiggins said of those comments back at media day. “When someone says something, and I don’t really care for the person, they don’t influence me or nothing like that. It doesn’t matter what he says.”

Even though they don’t really play the same position — Smart is a prototypical guard, Wiggins a lanky forward — there’s still a good chance they’ll match up defensively today.

That should offer college hoops fans quite the treat.

“They struggled at the beginning of the season, but they’re coming on. They’re a young team, but they’re a good team,” Smart said. “We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game.”

The Cowboys certainly brought it last season.

Smart scored 25 points and teammate Markel Brown rained down 3-pointers in an 85-80 victory that not only ended the Jayhawks’ nation-leading 18-game win streak but also their 33-game winning streak at the Phog. And when the buzzer sounded, and silence filled the old gym, the precocious Smart celebrated by doing a cartwheel and a backflip on the field house floor.

“I watched it on tape,” Self said with a grin, “and I thought, ‘What beautiful form!’ I thought he tucked just at the right time and got full extension. It was very impressive.”

You can bet Self made sure the rest of his team watched it on film, too.

“I just know after they won, there was a big celebration their team had,” Wiggins said this week. “We all know it’s very important. It’s a big game.”

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