Kansas gets big boost from junior
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Nick Collison was in the house getting his jersey retired. A year ago, it was Collison who schooled Texas and had Kansas talking about one of its finest forwards in a storied history.
Wayne Simien can't start thinking about his name in the rafters after just one game. But at least he's on his way toward replacing Collison's importance on this season's team and the KU program.
Michigan State became the first team on the Jayhawks' schedule to be "Simienized" -- a term we'll make up because it describes how much the Spartans were sliced apart by Simien's dazzling array of spin moves, putbacks and post moves.
If Simien can be a dominant player like he was in stretches of Tuesday night's 81-74 win against Michigan State, the Jayhawks certainly can make another run toward a Big 12 title and a third straight Final Four appearance.
It might end up being that simple in a year when only a handful of teams at the top -- Connecticut and Missouri, to name two -- have a player who can be too hard to handle inside.
OK, so it's incredibly early to project such goals. But the Jayhawks learned plenty about their team and Simien: Get him the ball and good things will happen.
Simien scored a career-high 28 points in a career-high 38 minutes in the Jayhawks' March-like win at, as usual, a raucous Allen Fieldhouse -- a site that easily ranks as one of the top three in the country when it comes to atmosphere.
The key stat for the 6-9 junior was as much the 38 minutes as it was the 28 points. Reason? Simien was limited to 16 games as a sophomore because of a dislocated right shoulder. He had surgery in April, which is why the Jayhawks are encouraged by his heavy-minute load ... as well as his production.
"You saw him,'' Kansas point guard Aaron Miles said. "I love it. He's 9-for-12 from the field but that's not enough touches. He didn't get enough. Wayne Simien is a beast.''
Added fellow guard Keith Langford: "If we can get him the ball like that, then he'll be in position to be the best player in the country. We're not stupid. In order for us to win, he has to have the ball. That goes to show you what he's capable of. The fact that we didn't have him down the stretch last year makes it even sicker for me that we lost (the national title game to Syracuse). Now that he's back, we're going to ride him, ride him and ride him.''
Bill Self's plan when he arrived in Lawrence was to work Simien in his high-low offense. The Jayhawks will look for the quick hit in a primary break. But if it's not there, they've got to funnel the offense through Simien.
"He needs to touch it every possession,'' Self said. "We need to score through our big guys.'' Simien showed his diversity by hitting spin moves, short jumpers and even his only 3-pointer. He also drew plenty of fouls from Paul Davis and anyone else trying their luck on him, going 9-for-9 from the free-throw line.
Simien was humble after the game, saying he has been in better grooves in a game. But it's hard to believe that's the case.
Simien gave Davis a tutorial in the first half. Davis said he was surprised by Simien's quick footwork and said he can "learn from it. All our bigs can learn from it.''
"Simien is the best big man, maybe the best big man we'll see,'' Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "He has great hands. He caught one pass under the basket, reversed and made it. I thought we did a better job on him in the second half (4-for-5 for 10 points). He might have gotten tired, too.''
But Simien's responsibilities pale in comparison to Davis'. He might have too much on his plate, especially with a brutal schedule ahead that serves up Penn, DePaul or Indiana State, Duke and Oklahoma over the next 10 days.
Davis, who went 3-of-11 from the field (13 points), while picking up four fouls in 32 minutes, was left as the lone big man on the court too often. The Spartans might take a cue from Arizona and/or Duke and go small. In fact, the Spartans cut most of Kansas' 17-point lead to four with 2:47 left in the second half with Davis as the only player taller than 6-6.
"This was a bad game (to go small) because most teams don't have as much bulk (as Kansas),'' Izzo said. "We've got to get those guys better (Ockerman, Andreas and Rowley).''
The Spartans committed 24 turnovers and Kansas converted 34 points. That's a stat that's hard to overcome. But the Spartans ultimately need to develop more of a post presence to survive the toughest non-conference schedule and the Big Ten.
Davis accepts that he'll have to be the only big man at times on the court. Expecting Brown and Anderson to get dirty in the post can't be the norm.
Expecting Davis to be Simien is simply not fair.
But that's the primary difference between these two top five teams so far.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.