This is a story about Kansas sophomore Wayne Selden, who on Saturday afternoon was sitting quietly in a locker room at the CenturyLink Center, just 24 hours or so from the most important defensive assignment of his career.
On late Sunday afternoon, Selden will start his 71st straight game for Kansas. He will be matched up against Wichita State star Ron Baker. Selden’s performance on Sunday could help decide whether Kansas advances to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five years or bows out in the round of 32 for the second straight year.
But to understand what Selden means to this Kansas team, forget that scene from Saturday. It’s better to go back to Jan. 23, to a hallway outside a locker room at the Erwin Center in Austin, Texas.
Selden, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, had just scored eight points in 27 minutes while Kansas notched a convincing 75-62 victory over Texas on the Longhorns’ home floor. It was a respectable performance, of course, but in the second half, during the game’s most important stretch, Selden found himself relegated to the bench, cheering while freshman Devonte’ Graham and sophomore Brannen Greene played in his place.
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In the moments after the game, Kansas coach Bill Self wandered outside the Jayhawks’ locker room, savoring the key road victory. While Self replayed the game’s key stretch, he was asked if Selden, a starter and Jayhawk linchpin, would understand his limited minutes.
“Oh yeah,” Self said, nodding his head. “Wayne’s a winner.”
Selden, a former top-15 recruit and McDonald’s All-American, has assumed many roles for Kansas this season. Self calls him a leader and praises his vocal leadership. Teammates follow his business-like swagger on the court and smile at his tendency to stay on message (Read: Be boring as possible) during interviews.
But at his core, Selden has been something of an enigma, a wild card who has experienced wild swings in his production. It’s a question Self has had to ask himself at times: What exactly is he going to get from Selden?
In moments, Selden can stir the Jayhawks with a chase-down block. He can punctuate a run with a one-handed alley-oop. Last week, in the final two games of the Big 12 tournament, Selden averaged 22.5 points while hitting 17 of 21 shots.
He can also tend to disappear. In the final six games of the Big 12 season, Selden averaged just 4.5 points while making eight of 36 shots from the field. On Friday, Selden finished with six points while the Jayhawks cruised to a 75-56 victory over No. 15 seed New Mexico State.
“It depends on what we need,” Selden said Saturday. “Yesterday, I scored six points and we won by 19. That’s all that matters. It depends on what the game flow is, what it’s like. Some guys are going to score 25 some nights. Some guys are going to score eight some nights.”
From a statistical standpoint, Selden’s sophomore season is nearly identical to his freshman campaign, where he mostly played a supporting role to Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. In 35 games last season, Selden averaged 9.7 points while shooting 43.7 percent in 29.2 minutes per game. Through 35 games this season, Selden is averaging 9.7 points while shooting 38.9 percent in 29.6 minutes per game.
If Self was expecting Selden to take a sizeable offensive leap in his second season, it hasn’t quite materialized. But Selden believes he’s learned to affect the game in other ways. He’s grown into a better defender, and he’s assumed a leadership role on a team dominated by laid-back and quiet personalities.
“He takes this very seriously,” said Kansas walk-on Evan Manning, one of Selden’s best friends on the team. “This is his job. From the first day he got here, he’s been all business.”
A native of Roxbury, Mass., Selden has also found comfort in Lawrence. His chiseled, 6-foot-5 frame can draw plenty of attention on campus. He rooms in the Jayhawker Towers with walk-on Tyler Self. Selden spends his days on the practice floor being pushed and molded by Tyler’s father.
“He’s changed my perspective on the game,” Selden said of coach Self. “I always thought I was a tough player, but he’s made me way tougher mentally. He’s shaped me to be a leader.”
On Sunday at the CenturyLink Center, the Jayhawks will lean on Selden’s toughness. He will be tasked with slowing down Baker, the Shockers’ leading scorer and blue-collar standout.
“They have good guard play,” Selden said, trying to downplay Sunday’s all-Kansas story line.
In another locker room, Baker sat surrounded by cameras, telling a story of growing up a Kansas fan and idolizing Kirk Hinrich. In the summertime, Baker says, he’s worked camps with KU players and watched them from afar. He’s grown into a fan of Selden’s game, too.
“He’s so explosive,” Baker said. “You might get past him, but then he’ll have a highlight block against you. He’s really athletic.
“He might tear the rim down nine or 10 times a game if he can.”
Back in the Kansas locker room, Selden kept his thoughts more measured.
This matchup with Wichita State was just another game, he said. He then pondered the volatile nature of his season, the highlights, the shooting slumps, the victories and losses.
At times this season, Self has wondered just what he’ll get from Selden on any given night. For now, though, Selden is just trying to give Kansas a victory on Sunday.
“It’s all about efficiency,” Selden said, “and doing what your team needs. All I care about is winning.”