ST. LOUIS – In the end, the season rode on the shoulders of a Kansas freshman.
That was not a surprise, given the makeup of this Jayhawks team. But it was a dreadful, desperate surprise that the freshman in that role was Conner Frankamp.
Not Andrew Wiggins, the Sports Illustrated cover boy falsely hyped as the greatest talent to grace the game since LeBron James. He was laboring to the end of a miserable four-point, four-turnover performance.
Not Joel Embiid, considered by many to be the No. 1 draft prospect in the world. He never took off his sweats in this NCAA tournament after being felled with a back injury.
No, it was Frankamp – ninth on the team in minutes played and 11th in scoring – trying to save a season on the brink against No. 10 seed Stanford. He'd sunk a pair of 3-pointers in the final minute to give the Jayhawks a chance, and he had the ball in his hands as the last seconds dwindled. Covered thoroughly this time, Frankamp's fall-away 3 was way off, and the Cardinal had pulled the upset, 60-57.
Thus, Kansas' full immersion in the win-with-freshmen sweepstakes ends early and ugly, and with plenty of anguish to go around. The top recruit MIA, the top pro talent DNP, the veteran Cardinal moving on to the Sweet 16.
Wiggins spared himself no mercy in the glum Jayhawks locker room. There was no camouflaging his 1-for-6 dud of a game, and he did not try to do so.
"I think everyone played good but me," Wiggins said. "I played bad. I wasn't there for my teammates when they needed me."
At the other end of the locker room, Embiid covered his face with one enormous hand. Being a helpless observer was a miserable way to spend March Madness.
"It was pretty tough," he said, voice barely a whisper.
Wiggins and Embiid join Jabari Parker and Tyler Ennis as the so-called "Year of the Freshman" stars who will leave the winning to players less heralded and more experienced. The cautionary tales for building a team around 18-year-olds continue to multiply, as it becomes more and more clear that the Anthony Davis-led championship model of Kentucky 2012 was a special aberration, not a blueprint for reliable success.
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It's true that Kansas probably would have won this game with a healthy Embiid. Without him, the tall Stanford front line forced a horror-show interior shooting performance by the Jayhawks (19 of 58 for the game, 32.8 percent). But the complete disappearance of Wiggins on Sunday highlights the fallibility of asking a guy to be the program savior 35 games into his college career.
"He tried," said Kansas big man Tarik Black, who almost single-handedly kept Kansas in the game before fouling out with five minutes to play. "He was trying. I wouldn't discredit him at all. He gave us what he had.
"This was a valuable lesson for a young player. Some nights you're not going to be the superstar everyone puts the pressure on you to be."
Wiggins is a great talent. He is not yet a great enough player to defeat a defense smartly designed by Johnny Dawkins to contain him.
"Wherever I went, I saw Stanford jerseys," Wiggins said. "They made sure I wasn't going to beat them."
Wiggins helped make sure he wasn't going to beat Stanford by never even trying to dominate the game. Bill Self has built one of the nation's best programs around team-oriented basketball, and his offense always works inside-out – which does not necessarily play to Wiggins' strengths as a wing player. But there is plenty of room within Self's framework for a perimeter guy to assert himself, and Wiggins did no such thing Sunday.
"Everything is a learning experience with young kids," Self said. "And, you know, this isn't the worst thing that's going to happen to him in his life. If it is, he's had a charmed life, there's no question about that. So you've got to learn to grow from it. When you get in these positions again, maybe do something a little differently – maybe to put yourself in the game or prepare or something. But hey, the kid's had a remarkable season.
"I'm sad for our team and I'm sad for him that it wasn't our day or his day today. But still, I don't think today should offset what he's done, you know, for 34 games, 34 other games in which he has been terrific."
That will be the sum total of his imprint upon Kansas basketball – a guy who had some terrific moments, but ultimately was just passing through with less to show for it than Jayhawks fans hoped. Now he will move on to the NBA with a draft status that should be far less certain than it was at the beginning of the year.
Wiggins will almost certainly be among the first two or three players selected, regardless of who else is coming out. He can guard and is an unquestionably elite athlete, but his jump shot is not automatic and his handle is iffy. And most concerning of all is a personality that lends itself to fading into the woodwork more than taking over. Building a franchise around an introvert is a risky strategy.
But Wiggins has company on that list of suddenly less-sure things. Parker's defensive weaknesses had him on the bench for key stretches in Duke's round-of-64 loss to Mercer. Embiid has a health issue – and unsound big men are another hold-your-breath commodity for NBA execs to consider.
When this shocker ended, by far the most distraught Jayhawk was Black – bent over and in tears on the court. He'd also been the Jayhawk who played hardest.
"That was my last game of college basketball," said Black, a senior transfer from Memphis. "That's what that meant. I love the game, and I was just sad to see the way it ended."
Loving the game – the college game – means something in March. Often it means more than having talent without complete investment.
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