KANSAS CITY, MO. — Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart has started some verbal sparring with the Kansas Jayhawks and their highly-touted freshman, Andrew Wiggins, only adding fuel to what many hope will be a season-long rivalry.
Smart and Wiggins were both in Kansas City on Tuesday for Big 12 media day. All the attention was on them and their two teams, picked to finish tied for first in the conference by the league's coaches.
Any sort of drama in the preseason is usually forcibly manufactured, but adding some sizzle to the typically tame media day festivities were comments Smart made to USA Today that Wiggins hasn't proven anything yet.
"If that's what I said, you can take it anyway you want to take it," Smart said Tuesday. "A lot of people are saying he's the best player in college basketball. I'm saying how can you be the best player if it's something you haven't even played in?"
This is what's fun about the preseason. It's a time to overreact to any borderline bulletin board material.
In Big 12 country, the folks are clamoring for some kind of rivalry that gets people talking.
Missouri-Kansas is no longer.
Kansas and Texas had a good run of future pros taking part in some epic showdowns, but Rick Barnes' program is on its way to the Big 12 basement.
But here stands Smart, back for his sophomore season and ready to challenge Kansas.
When Smart announced he was returning, the Cowboys held what amounted to a pep rally.
The perception in the Big 12 was, finally, here was a team that would be able to end KU's streak of nine Big 12 titles. The Jayhawks have to replace five starters this year.
The Cowboys and Smart have embraced wanting to be that team. I asked OSU guard Markel Brown if he wanted that, pointing across the room to the large media gathering around Wiggins and the Jayhawks.
"With him, it's going to come anyway," Brown said, looking over to Smart as he sat down. "Yeah, we want that. We wouldn't mind having that around this program at all."
When Wiggins announced on May 14 that he would be a Jayhawk, Smart said he didn't think to call anyone, but his cell phone blew up with messages.
"I'm a competitor," Smart said. "So obviously, I'm like 'okay, congratulations. It's time to go now. It's time to get back to work.'
"This is even a bigger motivator for us."
If this is going to be a rivalry this year—this battle of Wiggins vs. Smart—the chatter coming out of the two programs is going to be nothing alike. You're not going to read much about what Wiggins thinks of the whole thing.
Wiggins sat at the end of KU's table on Tuesday, surrounded by media throughout, and unless you were right in front of his face, you could not hear a word he said.
When he does speak, he keeps his answers short.
Smart has let us in, and he lets us know what he's thinking. But Wiggins is quiet, reserved and the most emotion you get out of him is a big smile every once in a while.
"Coach has gotten on him, and all he did was laugh and smile. He just walks back down the court and doesn't say anything," teammate Tarik Black said. "We joke with him like crazy, make him laugh and smile, and right after that, he's right back quiet.
"We haven't found it. And we're not going to poke too bad at him. We're not going to go overboard trying to get a reaction out of him. I just think it's going to take time."
When Smart arrived at Oklahoma State, coach Travis Ford couldn't get Smart to shut up.
"There were days in high school his high school coach made him stop talking because nobody else would talk," Ford said. "Made him stop. Because that's all you heard. And you come to our place right now, that's all you'll hear."
Ford said NBA scouts have been at their practices every day, and he'll tell them they're about to see the hardest working, loudest, best leader they've ever seen.
"You better watch out because he's going to be diving," Ford tells them. "(They'll say) 'didn't you already practice this morning?' I say, 'Don't worry about that. He doesn't know any different.'"
Wiggins may change the perception for Kansas in the recruiting world, but the culture did not need to be changed.
The Jayhawks have nine straight Big 12 titles, two Final Fours and a national title in the last six years. That says enough.
Part of how Self has kept his teams hungry is by not letting his players, especially the new guys, think they've earned anything.
"All we've really done is basically tell our guys there's been some pretty good players here before you that have proven their ability and how they can impact a program, and none of you guys have even made a basket yet," Self said.
That's where Smart is coming from.
You can criticize him and say he's going to regret opening his big mouth, but save that for the fans who overreact to everything.
Smart is saying what he thinks. He is what we want our stars to be. He's engaging. He says what's on his mind.
And he's pretty clear he wants to end that streak.
"Kansas is always a great team, have a great coaching staff with Coach Self," Smart said. "He puts his players in the right positions to win games and that's why they've won nine straight. But, like I said, we also have our starting five back, so we're pretty good too. We're not going to back down from any challenge."
The Jayhawks, meanwhile, exuded that quiet confidence of Wiggins on Tuesday. They know they're the hunted. They know about the streak. They know Smart is a great player, and if anyone can challenge them, he can.
Smart beat them at their place last year, ending a streak of 33 straight wins at Allen Fieldhouse.
Smart celebrated with a cart-wheel and a back flip.
And, finally, that's it.
That's the one button you can push to get the Jayhawks to say something.
"I still remember those back flips," junior point guard Naadir Tharpe said. "Back flip on our floor. You don't forget that."
Let the rivalry begin.
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