Kansas’ Selby answers call in debut

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Shortly before 11 a.m. on what she would later call a “beautiful, blessed day,” Maeshon Witherspoon removed her black-rimmed glasses and wiped away tears.

Josh Selby's first game at Kansas could not have gone much better.
(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

Strangers approached and shook her hand. A relative rubbed Witherspoon’s shoulders and a friend stepped across the aisle to offer a hug.

“Lots of emotions,” Witherspoon said.

And this was before her son, Josh Selby, capped his college debut with a clutch 3-pointer in Kansas’ 70-68 victory over USC. The win extended the Jayhawks’ home winning streak to a national-best 65 games.

“He bailed us out,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said of Selby. “He saved us.”

Not just Saturday, but maybe for the rest of the season.

Even with an unblemished record, third-ranked Kansas has struggled to put away mid-tier teams such as UCLA, Memphis and Arizona. The Jayhawks were good – but to be great, they clearly needed another piece, especially one who could score.

Kansas has that now in Selby, the No. 1-ranked recruit in the Class of 2010 by Rivals.com. After sitting out the first nine games because of an NCAA-mandated suspension, Selby finished with 21 points in his first college game and was 5-of-8 from beyond the arc.

His 3-pointer from the right wing with 24 seconds left gave Kansas a 69-68 lead and a momentum it would never relinquish.

“When I was on the court,” Selby said, “I kept saying in my head, ‘It’s just basketball. Just act like you’re back home in Baltimore, playing at the rec.’ That’s what I did. I wanted the game to be over after I hit that shot.”

It basically was.

On his team’s ensuing possession, USC’s Jio Fontan stepped on the out-of-bounds line with six seconds remaining. Kansas got the ball back and Tyrel Reed split a pair of foul shots that resulted in the final score.

Donte Smith netted 20 points and Alex Stepheson added 18 for a well-coached USC team that forced Kansas to shoot a season-low 38.9 percent. Still, the story of the day was Selby, whose trek to Lawrence is a tale in itself.

Selby grew up in a single-parent home in west Baltimore and often fell asleep to the gunshots that rang outside his bedroom window. For a time, Selby and his mother were homeless after she lost her job at Boston Market. He once saw one of his best friends get pistol whipped and, when Selby was 15, his cousin was murdered while sitting in his car.

Somehow – with the encouragement and support of his mother – Selby managed to steer clear of the temptations in his neighborhood and focus on basketball. Now more than ever, he’s glad he did.

“The percentage of him getting to college when he was five, six, seven years old probably wasn’t very high,” Self said. “I’m happy for him and his mother. They’ve made a lot of sacrifices to make sure this day occurred.”

Maeshon said nine friends and relatives made the 18-hour drive from Baltimore – often through snow-covered portions of the Midwest – to watch Selby play Saturday.

“Determination,” she said, “runs in the family.”

Selby made sure the trip was worth it.

Bill Self admitted Josh Selby isn't quite up to speed, but won't argue with the results.
(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

His stat line was even more impressive considering the pressure that continued to mount on his shoulders leading up to Saturday’s game.

The buzz about Selby – a likely one-and-done player – became so intense that Self said Saturday’s game may have been one of the most-anticipated games in recent Allen Fieldhouse memory. Before tipoff Self even said he “felt sorry” for Selby.

The ever-increasing spotlight was also one of the reasons Selby’s mother became emotional both Friday night and then Saturday afternoon as the starting lineups were announced.

“I was crying, nervous … just wondering if he was going to [fit in] with the team,” Maeshon said, “because the team has been playing so well. The chemistry has been good and we’ve been winning. If we didn’t get the ‘W’ I didn’t want him to be blamed for it.”

Selby said fellow Jayhawks such as the Marcus and Markieff Morris helped get him into a comfort zone Friday night.

“They helped a lot,” Selby said. “My teammates were telling me, ‘Play your game. Don’t worry about the pressure on you. You’ll be fine. Everything will take care of itself.’”

If Selby did have butterflies it certainly didn’t show.

Selby entered the game at the 15:53 mark of the first half and promptly hit his first shot as a collegian – a 3-pointer from the left wing. Four minutes later, Selby’s point tally was up to 10.

As Kansas extended its lead to 14 points, you can bet visions of Final Fours and national championships were dancing in the heads of a few Jayhawks’ fans, one of whom held up a sign that read, “Selby Is Free.”

“He’s got to do a lot of things to become a better basketball player,” Self said. “If you grade the film out, he didn’t do some things very well. But certainly, he can do some things you can’t teach.

“He doesn’t know what he’s doing out there and he still came away with 21 points.”

Selby’s debut certainly wasn’t without flaws. He committed four turnovers and never displayed the ability to blow past defenders and get to the basket – the main trait for which he is known. That didn’t bother Self, who said Selby is still “trying to fit in.” The other parts of his game will present themselves in time.

Jayhawks fans are willing to wait.

An embarrassing year for Kansas got even worse last week when Tulsa’s Bubba Cunningham turned down an offer at the last minute to become the school’s new athletic director. Kansas fans took the snub as an insult – and making matters worse was that it occurred on the same day that senior guard Mario Little was arrested on a battery charge involving a 22-year-old woman who began the season as the Jayhawks’ team manager.

Having a 65-game home winning streak halted by a football school would’ve sent Jayhawk Nation over the top. Luckily, the ball ended up in Selby’s hands with 24 seconds remaining. Self smirked when asked if he was surprised that Selby took the game-winning shot.

“No,” Self said, “I’d have been surprised if he didn’t.”

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Dec 18, 2010