Jayhawks need a consistent Selden to succeed in March

Wayne Selden Jayhawks

MARCH 2016 – It has been two and done for Kansas basketball in the past two NCAA Tournaments. That’s right, the Jayhawks have had a quick exit and lost their second game (round of 32) in 2014 and 2015.

KU was not completely whole and healthy as it entered the Big Dance the past two seasons, one reason why the team went home so early. In 2014 KU did not have freshman 7-footer Joel Embiid, an extremely gifted player and huge defensive presence who had back problems and eventually became the No. 3 overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Last year, the Jayhawks danced into the tournament sans freshman big man Cliff Alexander, a pivotal bench player and leading shot blocker who missed the last eight games since he was waiting on his eligibility ruling by the NCAA. And more importantly, junior Perry Ellis – KU’s best player who had been playing at an All-American level – was slowed with a knee injury, while sophomore sharpshooter Brannen Greene had an ailing hip.

Since losing to Stanford in 2014 and to Wichita State last March, the Jayhawks should march into the NCAA Tournament in excellent health after winning their 12th straight Big 12 championship.

“I think Kansas winning 11 straight Big 12 titles is one of the great accomplishments in the history of college basketball,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said in late January.

Winning all these league titles is indeed an astounding achievement (only UCLA has won more consecutive conference regular-season championships with 13 from 1967-79), but as KU coach Bill Self says, you have to play well in March to have a great season.

With a whole and healthy team, with veterans who have learned from past NCAA Tournament hardship and woes, with a team which has been hardened and seasoned by grueling games in the toughest conference in America, this ranked Kansas team looks poised to finally break into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013, when KU lost to Michigan in overtime in Arlington, Texas.

With so much parity and no truly dominant team, like Kentucky last year, anything can happen. Six teams, including KU, have actually held the No. 1 spot in the AP poll this season.

The good news for Kansas is the Jayhawks are playing very impressive basketball, arguably the hottest team in the country. After stumbling earlier and losing three straight Big 12 road games (West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Iowa State), KU showed it can be a national title contender by winning at No. 3 Oklahoma, at K-State and at No. 19 Baylor.The 76-72 victory over OU on Feb. 13 was most noteworthy on KU’s resume. The Jayhawks also beat the high-powered Sooners 109-106 in a triple overtime classic in Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 4. The Sooners had won 10 straight at Norman before falling to the Jayhawks. With Jayhawks’ stars Ellis and Wayne Selden Jr. having off nights, rising sophomore guard Devonte’ Graham had the game of his life with 27 points while playing outstanding defense on leading national player of the year candidate Buddy Hield. Graham held Hield to no field goals the first half, and limited him to just 5-of-15 shooting for the game while forcing him into four turnovers.

“He was as good today as anybody has been since I’ve been here,” Self said. “His defense on Buddy Hield was remarkable. He played 39 minutes. And he took over the game offensively. Just took it over. He was special.”

Unsung junior forward Landen Lucas continued to shine and solidify that last starting position at the five spot, grabbing 10 rebounds after posting a career-high 16 boards against West Virginia the previous game.Bilas gushed over KU’s victory over the Sooners, which put the ‘Hawks into a tie at the time with West Virginia for the Big 12 lead.

“This is the heart of the champion stuff,” Bilas said.

Said Selden, “We got guys that can step up on any given night.”

Kansas is indeed balanced with four players averaging in double figures led by Ellis (16.4 ppg), but for the Jayhawks to reach the Final Four and cut down national championship nets in Houston at NRG Stadium on April 4, Selden needs to play his best basketball this postseason after performing poorly the last two NCAA Tournaments. In four NCAA games, the junior guard has averaged just 2.5 points while shooting a dismal 19 percent from the field (4-of-21), including 0-of-5 from beyond the arc.

Selden has more confidence this season and is averaging a career-high 13.8 points per game after averaging scoring 9.7 points as a freshman and 9.4 as a sophomore.

Selden, who’s come up big at times, was never better than against Kentucky on Jan. 30 in Allen Fieldhouse during the Jayhawks’ 90-84 overtime victory. He scored a career-high 33 points, while shooting 12-of-20 from the field and 3-of-5 from beyond the arc.

Selden has improved his shot and is shooting 42.1 percent from three-point range. But he’s not settling for just long jumpers, he’s attacking the basket more this season and becoming a complete player.

He said his game has improved playing with two point guards Graham and Frank Mason III in the starting lineup. That’s finally freed Selden of ball-handling responsibilities, where he is playing his true position at the three spot for the first time in his career.

“With the two smaller guards, it helps me be more aggressive,” Selden said. “They make it easy for me. They get in the paint and I’m just open. I’m taking open shots.”

Selden, however, didn’t score in double figures in four straight games after the Kentucky showdown. He needs to become more consistent and hit his full stride in March, where Self and Jayhawk fans hope he plays like the true alpha dog who starred in the Kentucky game and carried Team USA to the gold medal in the World University Games last summer in South Korea averaging 19.3 points per game.

He seems primed for the new responsibilities.

“I grew up a lot since I’ve been here, and my confidence grew with me,” Selden said. “I came here as a kid, and I’ve grown into a man.”

Along with Selden, Ellis can take over a game and has been KU’s most consistent player this season. Mason is one of the toughest players in the country who can get in the lane at will — a player Self calls the most “valuable” on the team — while the Jayhawks feed off Graham and his defense, enthusiasm and energy. Lucas, meanwhile, is an outstanding rebounder and the squad’s best post defender.

Off the bench, Greene gives KU a deadly stroke as one of the nation’s best three-point shooters (54.7 percent) while forward Jamari Traylor add energy up front. Guard Svi Mykhailiuk and forwards Cheick Diallo, Carlton Bragg and Hunter Mickelson add depth.

Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford believes KU is loaded, capable of winning the national championship.

“They got All-Americans and great players on their team,” Ford said. “I haven’t seen any team better. I don’t know if there’s much missing. They got great guards, they got great big men, they got a good bench. They got experience. I don’t know what they really don’t have. I’m sure every team in America would like to be a little bit better at something, but I really like their team. Obviously they’re extremely well-coached. I think they’re playing great basketball right now when you want to play really good basketball.”

While KU indeed has many talented players, there is no superstar like Andrew Wiggins or any likely lottery picks on the roster so the Jayhawks must play with great energy to reach their magic level in the Big Dance, something missing in their January losses at West Virginia and at Oklahoma State in January.

They’ve also been vulnerable to quick guards like Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis, Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans, WVU’s Jaysean Paige and Iowa State’s Monte Morris getting in the paint, so stopping penetration is another must in the NCAA Tournament.

This is a close-knit team that with no plans of seeing their hoops dreams end in the second round.

“We know that feeling and we definitely don’t want it again,” Traylor said. “We got a lot more urgency so we got to step it up.”

KU is ready for a deep run in March…and even into April.

“We all want to win. We want to win every game we step on the court,” Traylor said. “That’s the mindset we have. We’re going to make something special happen. We have guys at every position. We have juniors, we have seniors. We’re an old team. We are a force to be reckoned with. We are going to do great things.”

For more Jayhawks articles, visit kcsportspaper.com/category/college-teams/ku/

Article by David Garfield

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