KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bill Self needs John Calipari. He needs him the way Sherlock Holmes needs Professor Moriarty, the way Batman needs the Joker, the way Harry Potter needs Voldemort, the way that silly Trix rabbit needs those stinking kids.
A white hat needs a black hat, even if, in reality, both men sport chapeaus steeped in several shades of grey. Self, Kansas’ esteemed men’s basketball coach, needs a target. He needs a bar. He needs an adversary worthy of those mad skills, that folksy charm.
Missouri is gone; the hate gap remains. Kansas State? Self doesn’t take Little Brother seriously. Self owns Little Brother. The Jayhawks have won 47 of their past 50 against Little Brother.
Oklahoma State? Meh. Iowa State? The better Fred Hoiberg’s men get, the thicker the plot, but it ain’t there yet. Texas? Please. Let’s face it: The Jayhawks have won nine straight Big 12 titles. The other bullies on this block don’t swing quite the same stick that they used to.
This is about thinking bigger, picking a larger fight. College hoops needs compelling narratives. It needs subplots. It needs a little clean, old-fashioned hate. Hate is fun. Self rolling the Big 12 is fun. But it’s not nearly as much fun as watching him go head-to-head with Calipari, his peer over at Kentucky, on the court. Or, for that matter, on the recruiting trail.
Andrew Wiggins was supposed to be in the bag. The oddsmakers pegged Coach Cal as the favorite to land the prep sensation, a 6-foot-8 wing type with bedsprings for legs, a Canadian who’s drawn comparisons to LeBron James, Dominique Wilkins and just about every other skywalker in between.
On Tuesday, Wiggins chose Kansas.
The Commonwealth howled.
The Prairie roared.
Self? Self just grinned.
“It was kind of a surreal thing,” the Jayhawks coach recalled. “I was happy, but at the same time, it was almost a humble happiness.”
Cal didn’t need Wiggins — the Wildcats, hoping to prevent another NIT cameo, piled up the top recruiting class in the country, according to the blogosphere — but he wanted him. What Lola wants, Lola usually gets.
Tuesday was a twist, the latest in the Self vs. Cal saga that’s helped shape the landscape of the sport over the past eight or nine years. Self is 50. Cal is 54. Since 2003, the former has averaged 30 victories per season; the latter has averaged 30.3. Self has notched two Final Fours and one national championship; Cal has been to four Final Fours (two of them vacated), with one title to show for it.
The two have met, head to head, in two of the past five national championship games, winning one apiece. Self’s Jayhawks outlasted Cal’s Memphis Tigers for the 2008 title; Cal returned the favor when Kentucky trumped KU for all the marbles in 2012. What the heck: Why not a rubber match next April in Arlington?
They’re widely hailed as among the game’s alpha dogs, the top of the whistle-jockey food chain. They’re a pair of natural storytellers, renowned for their candor and their ability to fly in the face of political correctness. Give them a few minutes, in the right setting, and they’ll have otherwise cynical reporters eating out of their respective palms. They’re coaches first, salesmen second — two of the best closers in the sometimes seedy recruiting game.
On Tuesday morning, for example, Self texted Wiggins, one last time, just to check in:
Hey, man, I hope you have a great day.
Wiggins texted back:
“And that’s been my limited contact in recent days,” the coach said later.
Oh, you sly dog, you.
Between 2009-12, Self and Cal went head-to-head on at least nine elite prospects. The latter landed six of them, including point guard John Wall. Self came away with Xavier Henry and Josh Selby.
But this was a big one. A game-changer, theoretically. Wiggins is DNA gold, the son of former NBA guard Mitchell Wiggins and Marita Payne-Wiggins, a former Olympic sprinter. Think Ben McLemore, only taller and stronger, a holy terror who can wiggle past larger defenders or post up the smaller ones with equal aplomb. Wiggins might be the second coming of LeBron. He might not. His college days, health permitting, portend to be spectacular and brief. But when someone offers to lease you a Lamborghini, you don’t pitch a fit about the hubcaps.
On paper, Wiggins transforms what was expected to be a fringe top-25-ish, young, retooling Jayhawks team — one replacing all five starters — into a Final Four contender. Just like that. A roster that last week didn’t have any business being mentioned in the same breath as Kentucky’s now figures to be nipping at the Wildcats’ heels all winter long.
“And (I was) so proud that we were able to land Andrew to go along with what is already a terrific recruiting class,” the Kansas coach continued. “If anything, it got me excited to go back to work.”
It got KU fans excited, too. Wilt needed Russell. Magic needed Bird. Jordan needed Isiah. Self needs Calipari. We need a comfortable chair and some wings, stat. Because this movie just got a hell of a lot more interesting.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org