On the day Cheick Diallo was freed, the Kansas Jayhawks may have found the real Wayne Selden, too.
Nearly 10 hours after the NCAA announced that the freshman forward Diallo would be eligible to play starting next Tuesday, a development that could alter the course of this college basketball season, another persistent question mark emerged on a steamy night inside the Lahaina Civic Center.
Selden, the mercurial junior guard, carried the fifth-ranked Jayhawks to a Maui Invitational title, finishing with 25 points in a 70-63 victory over No. 19 Vanderbilt on Wednesday night.
“He was aggressive,” coach Bill Self said afterward. “He was powerful.”
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As a partisan Kansas crowed reveled inside a tiny Hawaiian gymnasium, the Jayhawks erased a 30-26 halftime deficit and outclassed the Commodores with quickness, depth and brilliant guard play, riding the backs of Selden, Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham. The Jayhawks’ backcourt would combine for 47 points and 18 rebounds as the Jayhawks won the Maui Invitational for the first time since 1996.
But at the heart of the performance was Selden, who kicked an early-season funk and found something here among the sandy beaches and crystal blue waters of the Pacific. During three days in Hawaii, Selden appeared to find the standout form that marked his summer stay at the World University Games in South Korea, when Selden averaged close to 20 points per game and led the Jayhawks to the gold medal. In three games here in Maui, Selden averaged 19.3 points and shot 70 percent from three-point range. He shared Most Valuable Player honors for the tournament with Mason, who sparked Kansas’ high-scoring attack with a week of hard-charging drives and deft playmaking.
“I saw the Wayne that was in South Korea,” Mason said. “[He] was very aggressive, made good shots. He didn’t let us down.”
The Jayhawks are now 4-1 and surging after a perfect week in Maui. They can leave the sting of a Champions Classic loss to Michigan State in the past. They own a victory over a Vanderbilt team that entered 5-0 and was picked to finish second in the Southeastern Conference, behind No. 1 Kentucky.
“It was a great win for us,” Self said.
In five days, Kansas will return to Allen Fieldhouse, and Diallo will make his season debut against Loyola (Maryland). The Jayhawks will add a 6-foot-9 forward to the frontcourt rotation, an athletic big man with a high motor and McDonald’s All-American pedigree. But if there was something else take away from this week in Maui, it was the arrival of Selden, who hopped off the mat after two quiet games against Northern Colorado and Michigan State.
Selden is loathe to speak about himself, and that did not change on Wednesday. After finishing 8 of 11 from the floor and 4 of 6 from three-point range, Selden pointed to the backcourt tandem of Mason and Graham, who broke down the Vanderbilt defense with penetration.
“I was getting open shots,” he said.
But Self was happy to oblige. This, too, was the Selden that Self saw in South Korea, the active wing who can add a play-making touch to his arsenal of jumpers.
“He shot a great percentage, but he didn’t just rely on jump shots,” Self said. “[He played] three games in three days and played 40 minutes in the humidity like this — he’s obviously a very well-conditioned athlete.”
A trophy in Maui, of course, is no harbinger for success in March. In five previous trips to the Maui Invitational, the Jayhawks had left as victors just once, in 1996-97, when Kansas spent most of the season atop the polls before losing to Arizona in the Sweet 16. In 1988, four months before claiming the NCAA title in Kansas City, Danny Manning and the Jayhawks finished just fourth during a week stay in Maui. And then there was four years ago, when Thomas Robinson and a reconfigured Kansas team finished runner-up, losing in the championship game to Duke. Four months later, the Jayhawks were in the national championship game once more.
But after a tumultuous week in the program, this was a cathartic victory — and something to build on. In the span of a week, Self had to deal with a team reeling from the Michigan State setback, the six-game suspension of Brannen Greene, and the drama surrounding Diallo. As the Jayhawks left the Lahaina Civic Center Wednesday, boarding a bus in the darkness, they could brace for a relaxing Thanksgiving on the beach and a couple of needed days off.
“Hopefully, it’s good preparation for us moving forward,” Self said.
In the opening minutes on Wednesday, Vanderbilt imposed its will with sheer size and a disciplined defense. The Commodores built a 16-6 lead as the Jayhawks struggled to score over 7-footers Damian Jones and Luke Kornet. Kansas didn’t finish inside the three-point line until Selden converted a finger roll with 9:41 left in the first half. The Jayhawks would claw back into the game, thanks to the hot shooting of Selden, who drilled three three-pointers during a 10-2 run. But the Commodores headed to the locker room with a four-point lead.
The Jayhawks, though, found a way to adjust, opening the second half with a 22-10 run, seizing control behind the tandem backcourt of Graham and Mason. While Mason sliced through the Vanderbilt defense with penetration, Graham hit the Commodores for eight points during the run. Selden stepped up and drilled his fourth three-pointer with 9:56 remaining, stretching the lead to 51-42. And the Jayhawks would keep the pedal down, taking a 64-51 advantage with 5:09 to play.
“Coming out at first, we were kind of rattled,” Selden said. “I feel like they had us rattled. They pressured us, but still packed it in and we didn’t really move the ball. We stood a lot, like we did [last week] against Michigan State. The second half, we were able to penetrate and get the ball moving and a lot of things opened up for us.”
At times this week, the Jayhawks looked like an offense working at full capacity. Mason played the role of pitbull. Perry Ellis offered steady production before a quiet night on Wednesday. And Selden emerged from the shadows. The Jayhawks, of course, were not playing at full capacity. Diallo spent the week on the bench. And in a few days, he will join this season’s story. But if this Wednesday in Hawaii was about additions, about Kansas’ pieces coming together, it was hard to not think of Selden as one, too.
“The way Wayne played tonight was the way we saw him play, basically, eight games in Korea,” Self said.