If Kansas coach Bill Self had his way, the Jayhawks wouldn’t have stepped out of Big 12 play to take on Kentucky on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
“No, no, uh-uh,” he said.
As it happened, though, the matchup and 90-84 overtime win served to zap fourth-ranked KU out of its recent funk.
And maybe with a carryover effect.
After three losses in five games, and weeks of mounting speculation about what ails the Jayhawks, this marquee meeting between the nation’s two winningest programs stoked an energy and engagement level among KU players that hadn’t been evident since their epic three-overtime win over Oklahoma on Jan. 4.
And no one was more representative of that, and influential in the contagiousness, than Wayne Selden, who amassed a career-high 33 points — four more than he had accumulated in KU’s three recent losses.
The most encouraging aspect of Selden’s performance was that it seemed to stem from him saying enough is enough and taking it upon himself to assert his way for a team with terrific pieces that had been aching for some dynamic leadership.
Before the game, he said, he found himself thinking about the recent past, “all the times when we came up short.”
“That lingers, and it can drag on,” he said. “ … You’ve just got to be really aggressive, I feel like, to get out of it.”
The need for that became more acute early in the game, when it was clear leading scorer Perry Ellis was headed toward a strange night with an early foul with one tick on the shot clock, an airballed free throw and a second foul fewer than 6 minutes into the game that would leave him sidelined until the second half.
So Selden scored eight straight points to keep KU afloat then.
And he only seemed to gain energy as the game went along, no small thing for a team that had looked so cement-legged lately that it was easy to wonder if they’d been sizzled out by the OU game or, heck, even the cumulative effect of the weeks last summer preparing for and participating in the World University Games in South Korea.
But here was Selden, making a three-pointer from the corner with two Wildcats running at him with 51 seconds left to give KU a 75-74 lead.
That helped send into overtime a game in which the Jayhawks had trailed by eight early in the second half.
Then here was Selden, scoring seven of Kansas’ 14 points in overtime, including a dunk he determined to uncork amid Kentucky’s spree of blocked shots (six for the game).
It “felt like,” he said, he had to “try something different.”
Which, in fact, spoke to his broader game.
“I thought Wayne today was as smart offensively as maybe he’s been all year,” Self said. “Because he didn’t settle.”
The question now, of course, is whether this sort of assertiveness is here to stay for Selden — whose frame of mind and will may be as pivotal as anyone’s on a KU team that still is seeking, well, its personality.
“If you really studied our team … we have some emotionless-type personalities,” Self said Thursday. “I mean, Frank (Mason) or Wayne or Perry, those guys don’t exert energy from an emotion standpoint. It doesn’t mean they don’t play hard … (but) sometimes those are the things that are so contagious and run through your team.
“(And) when you get a little stale, which we have been, it’s also contagious, that we kind of flat-line, too.”
Selden’s fire seemed to come and go last season, but he seemed to have established a new baseline after a breakthrough in Korea and strong early season.
But then he showed himself still susceptible to the ebb and flow of the season during KU’s recent slump.
“Sometimes it’s just life, you know?” said Selden, who seemed to be speaking about the team but might well have been accounting for himself. “I can’t really explain it. You get flat. It just takes some body to have some energy (and) pump it into” the team.
And so he did on a night when Ellis finished with 10 points but made just one of four field goals and missed five of 13 free throw attempts … and when KU had no real answers for Kentucky’s penetration … and when the Jayhawks committed 11 turnovers in the first half.
“Just kind of pieced it together,” Self said.
It helped, of course, that four Kentucky players fouled out and that KU went to the free-throw line 47 times (making 30) to Kentucky’s 22 (making 13).
It helped, too, that this UK team doesn’t quite know how to win in such a pressure-cooker, coach John Calipari would say.
But mostly Kansas pieced it together because the pieces are there to be engaged and meshed if someone or two on the court can infuse that.
The victory ignited by Selden’s play was a fine sign for the Jayhawks, good enough that afterward Self could say Selden’s presence and leadership were “what great players do.”
It remains to be seen, of course, whether this was just a nice moment or a reset button, both for Selden and KU — which may turn out to be quite intertwined.