Self loves toughness. He needs toughness. He rode the duo of Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor all the way to the national championship contest a couple of years ago. That wasn’t exactly a loaded group of NBA prospects, but those two guys consistently imposed their will and it got the Jayhawks to the final game of the season.
Wiggins hasn’t displayed a ton of toughness to this point. The same can be said about Embiid -- but the skilled 6-foot-11 Cameroon native has an excuse; he’s still learning the game. Perry Ellis and Tharpe wouldn’t be described as tough kids, either. But Selden possesses that killer instinct. Self and the assistant coaches saw it throughout the preseason, when he and Ellis were the two most productive players on the floor on most days.
“He gives us a physical toughness and a great competitive spirit,” Self told me Sunday. “Guys feed off of it.”
The strong and powerful Selden came out of the gates strong, scoring 15 points in the Jayhawks' win over Duke on Nov. 12 in Chicago. But that was his highest scoring output until this past week, when he strung together his best two offensive performances of his young career.
Kansas was 9-4, with road losses at Florida, Colorado, Villanova (in the Bahamas) and then the shocker last weekend in Allen Fieldhouse against 21st-ranked San Diego State. And Selden’s play was worrisome. He had as many turnovers (four) as points in the loss to the Gators. In the four losses, he made just seven total field goals and scored 19 points. Those in Lawrence -- and not just the fans -- were worrying about Selden and KU overall. Would this be the year the Big 12 streak ends?
It could depend on Selden, because the version we've seen over the past week can be the difference-maker for the Jayhawks. Selden can take pressure off Wiggins and can bring much-needed toughness to the table. Selden can shoot it, he can finish around the basket and he’s a capable passer who is able to set up guys such as Wiggins and Embiid for easy baskets.
Selden showed it all the past two games. He made 16 of 27 shots from the field, drilled 8 of 15 shots from behind the arc and was the key to a pair of critical wins over Oklahoma and Kansas State.
“We’re a different team when he plays like that,” Self said.
Final Four contenders.
Best of the non-Power Seven
Most of you know all about the big boys who are on display each and every night, but we give you a quick rundown of the top 10 teams outside the Power Seven (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, Big East, American) that you need to keep your eye on come March.
1. Wichita State: The Shockers remain undefeated after a come-from-behind, overtime road win against Missouri State. Gregg Marshall can coach, these guys have the experience of playing in the Final Four a year ago and have a couple of studs in Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker.
2. Harvard: The Crimson are difficult to judge because of a lackluster nonconference schedule and also because Tommy Amaker has been without Brandyn Curry and Kenyatta Smith for most of the season. When this team has everyone in the fold, it can do damage. Remember, the Crimson won a tourney game a year ago and didn’t have Curry or fellow senior Kyle Casey.
3. Gonzaga: I know Mark Few’s bunch lost to Portland, but the Zags are a wounded group right now. Gary Bell is out another few weeks with a broken hand, Kevin Pangos is battling a nagging toe injury and Sam Dower has a back injury. If Gonzaga can get healthy come February, they have enough to make noise. They have quality guards and a couple of impact bigs. They could use a wing to step up.
4. VCU: I ranked Shaka Smart & Co. in the top 15 in the preseason and the Rams haven’t quite lived up to the expectations, losing to Northern Iowa, Florida State and Georgetown (none of which are ranked). However, these guys have had to adjust to being without leader and point guard Darius Theus. The Rams still have two terrific players in Treveon Graham and Juvonte Reddic.
5. New Mexico: The Lobos have lost three nonleague games that have kept them from getting more national attention, but this team could be extremely dangerous. New coach Craig Neal has veteran guards Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood, and a couple of quality bigs in Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow. Freshman Cullen Neal, the son of the coach, could be the key.
6. San Diego State: The Aztecs have been terrific thus far this season, but I’m still not quite sold on the idea they are as dangerous as those ahead of them on this list. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year of sorts, but Xavier Thames, Winston Shepard and Tulane transfer Josh Davis have made certain that hasn’t happened. The Aztecs will need for Thames and freshman Matt Shrigley to make shots to advance come March.
7. UMass: The Minutemen have a terrific, hard-nosed point guard in Chaz Williams and a talented big man in Cady Lalanne. Derek Kellogg also has experienced role guys with Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney.
8. Saint Louis: Defense, defense, defense. The lone losses have come against Wisconsin and Wichita State. Jim Crews has taken over for the late Rick Majerus and maintained the tough, defense-minded mentality.
10. Manhattan: We profiled the Jaspers a couple of weeks ago, and Steve Masiello’s team -- if it stays healthy -- is the favorite to win the MAAC. Manhattan is road-tested, has veterans and just needs leading scorer George Beamon back healthy from a shoulder strain.
Russ Smith's quandary
Louisville senior guard Russ Smith admitted he’s stressed this season.
“It’s tough for me because I’ve got to try and please those guys up there,” Smith said as he pointed to the section that houses the NBA scouts at the Yum! Center. “And I’ve also got to please my team. It’s not easy.”
In the past, Smith has had to concentrate primarily on scoring, but now he’s had to attempt to balance scoring and also showing NBA scouts that he can make better decisions.
“It’s not easy for me,” he said.
Refreshing. Smith’s floor game has improved. He’s averaging 4.9 assists per game, compared to just 2.9 as a junior. His turnovers per contest are basically the same (2.9 to 2.7), and he’s also shooting the ball with more efficiency, making 44 percent of his shots from the field and 37 percent from beyond the arc.
But he understands that his team still needs him to get buckets, especially without three key players from a year ago: Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan.
Each week, we’re going to bring you one “true” mid-major program that could make noise come March. We started with Manhattan, looked at Toledo last week and now take a look at the best team in the Horizon.
A mid-major team needs a terrific point guard in order to make noise in the NCAA tournament. Green Bay has one in junior Keifer Sykes.
Sykes is a 5-foot-11, 175-pound scoring point guard who scored 32 points in a loss to Wisconsin earlier this season and had 21 points and 10 assists in a victory over Virginia.
But it’s not just Sykes for the Phoenix. Coach Brian Wardle also has a skilled and experienced 7-footer, one that caught the eye of NBA scouts early in his college career. While the 7-foot-1 Alec Brown hasn’t been quite as dominant as some expected, he’s still averaging 16.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and nearly 4 blocks per game and is a threat to step out and shoot the ball from the perimeter (he shoots 44 percent from 3).
Green Bay is 13-3 and 3-0 in league play thus far. There’s just one loss that isn’t of the quality variety and that’s against Eastern Michigan. The other two came against the Badgers and Harvard.
Wardle has Sykes and Brown, and he also has no shortage of shooters. The Phoenix are shooting 38 percent from long distance, with Brown, Rutgers transfer Vincent Garrett and Carrington Love as weapons from deep.
The ingredients for Green Bay are there: a big-time guard, a quality big man and shooters. Don’t be surprised if we’re talking about Wardle and the Phoenix come March.
Three best wins of the weekend
1. Iowa at Ohio State: The Hawkeyes have high expectations and were searching for that résumé victory. Fran McCaffery was back on the sideline and they got it in Columbus against Aaron Craft and the Buckeyes.
2. Stanford at Oregon: It’s no secret that Johnny Dawkins needs to win this season. The Cardinal had lost their first two league contests at home against Cal and on the road at Oregon State. This one keeps the postseason hopes alive.
3. Wyoming at Boise State: Larry Shyatt’s group went to Boise and got a big road victory over a team that was expected to return to the NCAA tourney.
Three worst losses of the weekend
1. Colorado: The Buffs lost a game at Washington, but the bigger loss may be that of star point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who went down with a serious left knee injury.
2). Illinois at Northwestern: If the Illini want to make the NCAA tourney, they can’t lose to Northwestern, and I don’t care where the game is.
3. NC State vs. Virginia: Not only did Mark Gottfried & Co. get blasted by Virginia 76-45, but the setback came on their own floor.