On a Sunday evening last March, Wayne Selden slumped into a chair inside the CenturyLink Center in Omaha and locked his eyes on the carpet. His shoulders sagged, his expression a blend of stoicism and anguish. For close to 10 minutes, the scene remained frozen.
In the preceding two hours, Selden’s Kansas team had suffered a 78-65 loss to Wichita State in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. The defeat staggered Selden and left a locker room stunned and morose. Here it was, a second straight early-round defeat, a beatdown at the hands of an in-state opponent, a moment that would hang in the ether all offseason. As Selden sat among his teammates, he contemplated his night: 23 minutes, zero points, two turnovers, a disastrous performance at the worst possible time.
“I struggled early,” Selden said, “and I let my team down.”
In the weeks that followed, as the Jayhawks excavated a season that ended too early, Selden focused on moving on. He announced his plans to return to school for his junior season — though the decision was mostly pro forma. He returned to the KU practice facility, flushing out the Wichita State loss with a series of long workout sessions. He sketched out a plan for the offseason, a way to regain his mojo after an underwhelming sophomore season.
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The plan, Selden says, was not technical or complex. He did not focus on any one skill or deficiency, he says. He did not dwell on his struggles, such as finishing around the basket. Kansas’ staff has a history of providing video cut-ups for players in the offseason; Selden eschewed the film work. Instead, he says, he just wanted to play, a routine of emotional catharsis that would allow him to see things more clearly.
“It was just going out there and playing,” Selden says. “It was kind of like a clean slate.”
Seven months after that loss in Omaha, Selden sits as perhaps the most pivotal member of this year’s version of Kansas, a group with Final Four goals and NCAA title aspirations. Senior power forward Perry Ellis could be Kansas’ leading scorer and its steady hand. Junior guard Frank Mason could be its MVP and its pulsating heartbeat. But if the Jayhawks want to claim a 12th straight Big 12 title and slay their recent March demons, Selden may have to prove himself as the third piece of a leading triumvirate, a jump-shooting wing who plays up to his potential and ceiling.
“He’s going to be inconsistent,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Most players are. But if he relies on his athletic ability and is aggressive enough to play to his athletic ability, I think consistency will come.”
Consistency, of course, can come in many forms, but Self is hopeful Selden found something — comfort, confidence? — during a gold medal-winning stay at the World University Games last summer. Self’s faith is bolstered by numbers. In 10 games against international competition — including exhibition games against Canada — Selden averaged 18.9 points and 6.5 rebounds, averaging 34 minutes. More impressive: After shooting 39.5 percent from inside the three-point line as a sophomore, Selden increased that clip to nearly 60 percent in Gwangju, South Korea.
Selden views the summer performance in a simplified manner. On a team that competed without Svi Mykhailiuk, Devonte’ Graham, Brannen Greene and freshman big man Cheick Diallo, the Jayhawks needed offense.
“I knew I was going to have to score,” Selden says. “We have a lot of young guys. We have Perry, we have Frank. But I knew I was going to have to score, and coach made it apparent before we went over there.”
Selden also benefited from some stylistic changes. With the roster depleted, Self enlisted SMU guard Nic Moore for the tournament and employed a backcourt that featured Selden playing alongside two smaller guards. The setup allowed Selden, a 6-foot-5 wing, to play to his strengths. He was freed from any ballhandling responsibilities and was unleashed on the offensive glass. He attacked the basket and lived at the free-throw line. This year, Self plans to field a similar lineup, with Mason and Graham starting alongside Selden.
“It will help a lot,” Selden says. “Just knowing my role better now. Freshman year, I didn’t really know my role too well. Last year, I knew my role, but I really didn’t do it too well.”
In some ways, perhaps Selden was just miscast. When he arrived on campus in 2013 — a McDonald All-American with one-and-done buzz — he was thought of as a quintessential shooting guard. As a freshman, he averaged 9.7 points while starting all 35 games alongside Andrew Wiggins in the backcourt. As Wiggins and freshman center Joel Embiid dominated the attention — and the ball — Ellis enjoyed a breakout season, Selden receded into a supporting role. That was supposed to change last season, with Wiggins gone and Selden a year older and stronger. Instead, Selden took a small step back, averaging 9.4 points while shooting 38 percent. In moments, he did not look comfortable with the ball in his hands. He could never find a way to play to his athleticism.
“Everything is not going to go your way at all times,” Selden said. “I didn’t finish well around the basket last year. It’s not that I couldn’t do it. It’s just something that didn’t work out for me.”
Inside the locker room, Selden, a native of Roxbury, Mass., is adored by his teammates. He is a vocal leader who can own a room with a degree of charisma. Self calls Selden a “winner” — a player that cares little about his individual performance. And yet, the struggles of the past year were not easy to swallow. The missed shots were not easy to internalize.
“He cares a lot,” says senior walk-on Evan Manning, one of Selden’s best friends on the team. “He cares so much about this program, and he wants to succeed. And he wants to be helping guys succeed. And when he would have bad games last year, it’s hard for you not to get down.”
Selden is less forthcoming on the subject. This is not his way. Instead, he would prefer to look forward. Last summer, in the afterglow of the World University Games, Selden and a few teammates found themselves hanging in an on-campus apartment on a nondescript afternoon. It was a typical college moment, video games and television and some cheap food, a few friends hanging out as a new school year beckoned. Then a voice broke the silence.
“We got to win this year.”
Forget the sophomore numbers. Forget the struggles. Forget all that. For Selden, there is only one goal: Bury the memory of Wichita State; go deep into the NCAA Tournament; experience a Final Four for the first time.
“All we want to do is win at the end of the day,” Selden says. “We know that will heal all. We know that exiting early these past two years, we know that if we win now, it won’t matter. We just want to win.”