CHICAGO — I had the interesting vantage point of sitting with fans a few rows behind the floor during the second half of Tuesday’s Champions Classic thriller between Kansas and Michigan State. Sometimes I enjoy sitting in these areas while covering games because you get a sense of how a fanbase feels about certain players or certain things their team likes to do.
Kansas fans hated Wayne Selden on Tuesday night — at least the fans sitting near me. They laid into him with a ferocity I haven’t seen out of fans with their own player in quite some time. I’d drop some quotes in here, but I’d get fired; most of what they said would make Joe Pesci blush.
Is the lingering disappointment of Selden’s career at Kansas turning into something worse?
Selden has been a polarizing figure among Kansas fans the last two seasons and they’ve been wondering since August which version of Wayne would pop up during his junior season.
Would we see the Selden that dominated stretches in South Korea and helped lead Kansas to a gold medal at the World University Games over the summer? Or would we see the disappointing Selden that regressed during his sophomore season and only shot 38 percent from the field?
Kansas fans saw sophomore season Selden during the loss to Michigan State as the 6-foot-5 junior struggled mightily in the second half to finish 3-for-12 from the field and 2-for-6 from 3-point range. He was thoroughly outplayed by Denzel Valentine. Selden finished with 12 points, one rebound and one assist for the game.
It’s no secret that if the Jayhawks want to be national title competitors this season that they need Selden to step up and play like the highly-touted McDonald’s All-American that came to Lawrence. Senior forward Perry Ellis is as steady as they come in terms of production and junior point guard Frank Mason emerged as the team’s most important player last season. Selden seems like the natural fit to be the third scorer on what appears to be a deep Kansas team filled with very good role players.
But maybe Selden is just not up to the task of being a go-to player?
The junior’s erratic play has made him a bit of a toxic figure among Kansas fans and their lingering disappointment was especially apparent during that second half at the United Center.
Fan disappointment aside, Selden just hasn’t produced up to expectations on the floor no matter how you cut it. He’s never averaged double-figures in scoring for a season. In 16 games against ranked opponents last season, Selden only scored in double-figures five times and it came against only two opponents (three times against Iowa State, twice versus Baylor). Against Wichita State in the NCAA tournament, Selden was scoreless in 23 minutes of a disappointing Round of 32 exit.
When Selden looked good in South Korea it was in-part because he was more athletic than his international counterparts and they didn’t have a chance to scout him in advance like a Big 12 team would. Now that he’s back on American soil, Selden’s lack of scoring moves is getting continually exposed against the best teams. Michigan State held Selden to 0-for-10 shooting last season and again limited him to an off-night on Tuesday. He just hasn’t added moves to his repertoire since high school and if his perimeter shot isn’t falling Selden’s offense could be in for a long night.
But if Selden is not the third scorer with this group, then who is?
Devonte’ Graham struggled to a 1-for-9 night from the field and Brannen Greene is hit-or-miss as a perimeter-shooting specialist. There doesn’t appear to be a Cheick Diallo decision on the horizon (and even if he played he’s more of an impact as a defender and rebounder) and we’ve seen enough out of Landen Lucas, Jamari Traylor and Hunter Mickelson to know that they’re not going to be major, consistent factors in the scoring column.
Which leads me to this: Kansas needs to insert Carlton Bragg more into the lineup and use his unique offensive abilities whenever they need a boost. Also a former McDonald’s All-American, Bragg is the type of talented forward who can face-up and hit jumpers with range. If he can supplant Ellis for a few minutes and knock down some shots early in the season, it could build his confidence to be more of a go-to guy later in the season.
Multiple sources who have seen recent Kansas practices told NBCSports.com that Bragg looked outstanding and was one of the best players on the floor. Bragg only played 11 minutes against Michigan State and finished 2-for-2 with four points and no rebounds. Not exactly killing it.
But then again, Cliff Alexander wasn’t exactly killing it last season at Kansas, but he still made the Portland Trail Blazers roster as an undrafted rookie. Without Alexander and Kelly Oubre producing to high expectations, Kansas was gone by the first weekend last season. If Bragg is talented enough to be one of the best Kansas players in practice, hopefully with added minutes and confidence he can emerge as an off-the-bench scorer or additional late-game option that Kansas has been looking for.
We’ve watched Wayne Selden struggle in big games enough to be skeptical about his ability to be a main cog going forward, so why not see if a talented All-American can give a spark? It might not have worked out last season with Alexander and Oubre, but this is a deeper and more balanced Kansas team this season and Bragg could be that spark.
Bragg and Ellis might not be able to play alongside each other for significant stretches against bigger teams, but if both can knock down shots, it could make for an intriguing Kansas lineup that can spread the floor and make it tough to guard all five positions. Maybe this is the kind of end-of-game lineup that Kansas can look into, because whatever they tried against Michigan State wasn’t working.
If Kansas opts to say with Selden as a main option, I don’t see them being a national contender this season. They need someone else to step up besides Ellis and Mason. Bragg has the natural talent to potentially fill that void if Self allows him to play through some early mental lapses. It’ll be interesting to see how Self brings Bragg along this season, but if he’s been as good as advertised in practice then he needs to be on the floor because the Jayhawks can’t make a run with the way things currently stand.