And here’s the scary thing: This is supposed to be Kansas at its worst.
This is a starting lineup of teenagers and strangers; five new faces, three of them freshmen. This is supposed to be when we cringe a little and cover our eyes on occasion and remind ourselves to be patient, when we reassure ourselves of the marathon to come. This is supposed to be when we tell the doubters how November basketball is written in ink but March — March is etched in stone.
Then KU 94, Duke 83 happens, and we say the hell with cringing and patience and marathons. On their first appearance on the Big Stage on Tuesday night, The Baby Jays played chicken with Coach K in Coach K’s hometown, and the Blue Devils swerved into the ditch first.
Oh, sure, the word was that something special was bound to happen, a greatness as inevitable as the sunrise. But conventional wisdom said it would start to crystalize in January and February. Maybe before Christmas, if the kids found a rhythm they could dance to.
KU 94, Duke 83. These kids just made Carrie Ann Inaba swoon.
Believe the hype. Believe it all.
Believe in Andrew Wiggins (22 points, 10 boards), who saved the best for last. Believe in the step-back jumper near the baseline, an absolutely Jordanesque move in the house that Jordan built. Believe in the graceful dunk off the break that ended Blue Devils star Jabari Parker’s night, and Duke’s as well. Believe in the sense of timing, the sense of clutch, the wide-eyed innocence of a talent that is starting to realize just how good he actually is.
Believe in Perry Ellis (24 points, seven rebounds), the born scorer, post silk, now with the confidence, the experience, the scars and the faith needed to weather the oncoming storms.
Believe in Wayne Selden (15 points, eight rebounds, four assists), the guard who can seemingly do anything asked. Believe in the passing, the range, the ability to handle the point one series and flash to the wing the next.
Believe in a bench that can go big or go small, a rotation that runs 10 or 11 deep of studs who would get the lion’s share of floor time almost anywhere else. Believe in Joel Embiid’s vision, Frank Mason’s quicks, Brannen Greene’s perpetual fearlessness.
Believe in Bill Self — as if you didn’t — as he chases the ghosts of John Wooden, teaching and cajoling, nurturing where necessary, butt-chewing where necessary, and (finally) scratching a win over Duke off his own personal bucket list.
Believe in envy. Understand the inevitable backlash, the narrative in many eyes that Wiggins was outplayed/outclassed by fellow freshman Parker (27 points, nine boards), especially in the first half. But circumstances — and the NCAA’s new hand-check enforcement — had something to do with that, too: While the Duke freshman was busy dropping 19 before the break, two swift fouls put Wiggins on the bench for 11 of the game’s first 20 minutes.
“I don’t hate the guy,” Parker told the Charlotte Observer earlier this week when asked about the KU star. “I think y’all just want to make it a frenzy, build a story.”
Too late. The frenzy’s already here, sitting courtside. And it ain’t going anywhere.
In one building, on one night, the United Center faithful got to witness Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Parker and Wiggins, future millionaires all, in the flesh. Only Wiggins came away with a win to show for it.
Parker laughed the loudest.
Maple Jordan laughed last.
Believe in destiny. There’s a long road ahead, and miles to go before the season sleeps. But the first test, the first big, glorious test, was passed. With flying colors.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.