Much has been made of star freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid as No. 8 Kansas continues to prove itself an NCAA tournament title contender.
Coach Bill Self, however, knows it will take a collective effort to be a tournament-winning team heading into Monday night’s showdown at archrival Kansas State.
Wiggins is averaging a team-high 16.0 points to go with 6.0 rebounds, mostly living up to the hype surrounding his arrival in Lawrence as one of the nation’s premier freshmen.
Embiid, who is contributing 10.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game, was more of a raw recruit given his lack of organized basketball experience growing up in Cameroon. The 7-footer is also trying to avoid the distractions that come with some mock drafts projecting him as the No. 1 overall pick should he leave early.
The two combined for 30 points — Wiggins scored 19 while Embiid had 12 rebounds for his sixth double-double — but the role players were key for the Jayhawks (18-5, 9-1 Big 12) in an 83-69 win over West Virginia on Saturday.
Tarik Black — the one-year transfer from Memphis — contributed 11 points off the bench and fellow reserve Jamari Taylor had seven as Kansas overcame Embiid’s foul trouble.
"If you’re going to pick three guys for who’s the most valuable player, I would take Frank (Mason), Mari and Tarik," Self said. "They were great in the first half … they were the main reason we had the lead."
Given the hostile atmosphere when Kansas arrives at "The Little Apple" in Manhattan, Self knows his two young stars are in for a challenge from the Wildcats (16-7, 6-4), who are eager to add another quality win to their tournament resume and avenge an 86-60 thrashing absorbed at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 11.
"I’m sure that they’re doing some things a little differently than they did the first game," Self said. "We know it will be a totally different game over there with the energy they get from their fans. It’ll be a great test for our young kids to go over there and see how tough we are.
"Sometimes we can lose focus pretty easily, but this is one of those games where we can’t do that. We need to be pretty intent the next 48 hours."
Another quality freshman, Marcus Foster, played with plenty of intent for Kansas State on Saturday, scoring a season-high 34 points as the Wildcats avoided a fourth loss in five games with a 74-57 pounding of No. 15 Texas.
Foster went 5 of 8 from 3-point range and made all eight of his shots from inside the arc as Kansas State improved to 29-2 at home under second-year coach Bruce Weber.
We know it will be a totally different game over there with the energy they get from their fans. It’ll be a great test for our young kids to go over there and see how tough we are.
-- Bill Self
"The thing that I like is he has gotten a little better about being more patient, waiting for good shots, he is our go-to guy," Weber said of Foster, who is averaging a team-best 14.7 points. "As far as the perimeter, we have got to get him the ball but we need to know that if they are good defensively he has got to give it up."
Foster was held in check in the loss at Kansas, totaling only seven points on 3-of-12 shooting. Wiggins had 22, Embiid had 11 and nine rebounds and fellow freshman Wayne Selden Jr. scored 20 for Kansas, which shot 65 percent while building a 45-28 halftime lead.
Kansas State has won 12 straight at home after being stunned by Northern Colorado in its season opener, but Kansas dealt Weber his only Big 12 home loss last season.
The Jayhawks have won six straight between the teams, 48 of the last 51 and lead the Sunflower State rivalry 187-91.