OMAHA, Neb. — The eyes weren’t sad. They were comatose. Wayne Selden stared dead ahead, zombified, arms folded across his chest as he leaned back into his locker stall.
The third-biggest Division I program in the state had turned over the biggest program in the state, and one of the most iconic in the country, and shaken it for every last nickel of its lunch money on national television. Wichita State 78, Kansas 65 sent the Jayhawks home in the Big Dance’s third round to a lower-seeded school for a second straight March.
A reporter crouched down, leaned over to the expressionless Selden — fresh off a zero-for-five night from the floor, zero for one from beyond the arc in 23 minutes — and asked: What is it about the Big 12 champions and Bracketville? What needs to change?
"It’s the biggest game of the year and the biggest game of most of our careers, and we didn’t take it seriously," Selden said, eyes still glazed. "(Including) myself. As a leader, you know, I take a lot of that."
Thumbs outnumbered fingers as pointing went in the KU camp early Sunday night at CenturyLink Center, a good sign. Coach Bill Self fell on a few dozen swords, when offered. Selden, his sophomore off-guard, did the same.
"I feel like I just didn’t come through (Sunday)," Selden said. "I felt like I wasn’t engaged in the game."
True and true, and a chapter closes. But here’s the funny thing: For all the doom and gloom and grumbling Monday, the glass for KU hoops in 2015-16, at first blush, isn’t half full.
For the second straight winter, Self piloted a flawed KU roster through the toughest dang schedule in the country and won the Big 12 anyway. Only the rosiest of rose-colored glasses anticipated much March mileage from a team with zero rim protection and an on-again, off-again love affair with the 3-point shot. If you want a positive spin, a silver lining to hang from, it’s this: A rematch with Kentucky, which beat KU by 32 in November and is probably waiting for the winner of Shockers-Notre Dame in the Midwest Regional finals, probably wouldn’t have looked all that much kinder than the first attempt.
And yet this is also a roster (at the moment) poised to be better (on paper, always with the caveats) than it was this past winter, something nobody was saying in March 2014 with lottery darlings Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid pretty much already out the door. It would be a mild surprise if gifted freshman wing Kelly Oubre elected to forgo the NBA Draft (where he’s projected as a top 12 pick); it would be a major one if Cliff Alexander, still entangled in NCAA eligibility taffy, decided to do the same.
But there’s cover, so to speak, for the latter — Carlton Bragg, a 6-foot-8 five-star prep out of Cleveland could effectively serve the same function next season Big Cliff did this past winter, assuming that flight path is still clear. Oubre is a trickier hole to patch; perhaps 6-7 teen Ukrainian Svi Mykhailiuk with another summer of conditioning and shaping and lifting (mostly lifting) slides into that gap. Maybe Brannen Greene takes a step from role shooter to more of an all-around wing.
But if senior-to-be power forward Perry Ellis — who, unlike Oubre, isn’t projected to be a lottery grab — elects to return, to really go for it, now you’ve got a base of the experienced, veteran pieces more along the lines of the Wichita State crew that sent you packing. Frank Mason is clearly on the climbing part of the curve at point guard; Mason and Ellis, a healthy Ellis, would be strong enough pillars by themselves to start building another Big 12 champion around.
Opposing coaches have described this Kansas roster as good, not great, and — unlike, say, Kentucky — not elite. Respected, but not feared. Iowa State and the Shockers weren’t intimidated by the name across the front of the jersey, which did nothing to hide the lack of an NBA-type enforcer waiting to clean up in the paint. The Shockers and Cyclones made a beeline for the rim, given the chance — it’s little coincidence Self accidentally congratulated Iowa State when on the stage Sunday in Omaha before correcting himself: The second halves of KU’s last two elimination games in March played out in eerily similar fashion.
Necessary postseason renovations probably start there, and if Self can wrangle 7-foot prep Thon Maker or 6-11 Stephen Zimmerman into the fold, that could cross one more need off the bucket list.
But the more curious trend line, moving forward, circles us back to the most mercurial one of the last seven months: That is, Selden himself. Where’s the head? Where’s the heart? More to the point, where’s the ceiling?
Ellis has built upon the prep hype after a slow start and Mason and Devonte’ Graham are hands that fans — and, more important, Self — feel comfortable seeing at the controls. Meanwhile, Selden, a 6-foot-5 wing player with a granite build, has quietly regressed. Or stagnated, at best.
Billed as a step below the lofty profile of Wiggins and more NBA-sexy than, say, Embiid, he charmed the locals as a freshman with his athleticism, speed, scrap and crowd-diving enthusiasm.
But as a sophomore, Selden couldn’t buy a layup with Darrelle Revis’ wallet (50.7 percent finishing at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com, down from 69.1 the year before), was capable of 20 points one night and two the next and seemed to let his offensive woes carry over into his motor and poise defensively. There were nights Self couldn’t wait to yank him back to the pine, a yo-yo relationship emblematic of a yo-yo campaign.
"When you’re not scoring, you can (contribute) in other ways," Selden observed, "and I feel that I didn’t do that."
Some wonder if perhaps Selden’s bad ankle was worse than he let on. Others wonder if he loathes missing the chance to time his NBA jump just right and can’t shake the scar. Regardless, the roller-coaster ride hasn’t been good for anybody’s blood pressure: A dozen times, the Massachusetts native went for at least 12 points; a dozen other times, he netted six points or fewer.
Much as it pains, the last 25 or so minutes of the KU-Wichita game illustrated as well as anything where the Jayhawks are at the moment and where they have to go to close the gap in the Big Dance. When the Shockers got down eight, 24-16, clearly bothered by superior athleticism, speed and height, nobody in black panicked; veteran guards Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton turned up the defensive heat. Over the last five-and-a-half minutes of the first half, KU went zero for eight from the floor and turned it over twice while the seventh-seeded Shockers closed the period on a 13-2 run.
Clever coaching can hide holes in the perimeter throughout the long grind of a regular season. Those holes wind up getting exposed in March.
"It just hurts us because we’ve been here before," Selden sighed. "It’s getting old."
On Sunday, Selden and Oubre went a combined three for 14 from the floor with nine points and four turnovers. In the Big 12 tourney loss the weekend before at the hands of the Cyclones, Mason and Oubre went three for 14 from the floor with 16 points and four turnovers. In the third-round NCAA loss to Stanford a year ago, Selden and then-point man Naadir Tharpe went three for 13 with seven points and three turnovers. There’s a pattern there. And it stings.