LAWRENCE — The play that put Kansas up for good Saturday in its 70-68 victory over Southern California, the play that said so much about who the Jayhawks will be the rest of this season, the play that sent the noise level in Allen Fieldhouse into a new stratosphere, was drawn up for Marcus Morris.
This was no surprise. Morris had a potential mismatch with USC's more slow-footed center, Nikola Vucevic, and KU coach Bill Self wanted his leading scorer to drive it with his team trailing by two points and his program's 64-game Allen Fieldhouse winning streak on the line. But coming out of the timeout, freshman guard Josh Selby, the kid playing his first college game, was told by Morris to be ready in case he faced a double team.
Self had been protecting Selby. Self had decided to play Selby, who has premier point-guard skills, off the ball in favor of Tyshawn Taylor. Self had decided not to start Selby, saying that he had to beat somebody out first. Anything to shield perhaps the best recruit in Self's seven-plus seasons at KU from the inevitable pressure that any 19-year-old kid would feel walking into the thick of The Phog.
Kansas inbounded the ball with 38 seconds left, and, as planned, Morris drove at Vucevic, but Morris pulled up too short and floated an awkward jumper. It missed, but Markieff Morris grabbed the rebound. Another chance. Markieff passed to Marcus, who had relocated to the corner.
Now the Jayhawks had to execute out of broken offense. Marcus dribbled in and rifled a cross-court pass to an open Selby, who had the option of passing to an open Taylor to his right or shooting it.
"I would be surprised if he didn't take the last shot," Self said.
Selby, who had already nailed four three-pointers, lifted and unfurled another. Whether he would make the shot or not, Selby met the expectations of the 16,300 in attendance simply by realizing the moment and seizing it.
In the bleachers on the other end of the court, behind the USC bench, Selby's mother, Maeshon Witherspoon, watched the ball fly through the air. She knew her son was fearless and would not back down from the big shot, and she'd later try to put it in perspective by asking "Have you seen ‘The Wire’?"
“The Wire” is a HBO drama that centers around the Baltimore drug trade. The show became a cult classic because of its accurate portrayal of life in the inner city by producer David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who saw the way children were funneled to the corners to help feed a city's addiction.
This was the world Josh Selby grew up in, and Witherspoon felt it was relevant.
"Baltimore will do it to you," Witherspoon said. "Josh is just a kid that doesn't understand the word 'No.' He wants so much more. When you come from not having nothing and you really want something, he understands he has to work hard to get it."
Witherspoon says it's a family thing. Her mother was a strong single parent, too. They steered Selby away from trouble as best they could with the help of people like Robert "Bay" Frazier.
Selby was suspended for nine games by the NCAA for accepting impermissible benefits from Frazier, a Baltimore native who serves as business manager for Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony. But Selby also took important guidance from Frazier, a rare male figure in his life.
"Mr. Frazier is an intricate part of that family," Witherspoon said, "and, to me, he kept Josh level-headed. If it wasn't for him, ya'll would not be seeing Josh in a Kansas jersey."
To Self, Selby simply enrolling in classes at KU was monumental.
"The percentage on him getting to college when he was five, six, seven years old probably wasn't real high," Self said.
But Selby was brought here to play basketball, of course. And, for a while, there was no clue as to whether the NCAA would let him. The Jayhawks began their season with no timeline for Selby's debut, and they looked pretty good without him. They got the news on Nov. 19 that Selby would play his first game Saturday against the Trojans, and the countdown began.
Self continued to ride Selby, who was playing with the second team in practice.
"I've said many times, 'Can you score? I mean, you're on the red team and you haven't made a basket all day,'æ" Self said.
"Coach, I can score," Selby would say in his thick east coast accent.
"Well, show me you can score," Self would respond.
Selby's day finally arrived. Time to show something. On Saturday, Selby took the floor in front of all these strangers who desperately wanted to love him, to believe in him. Signs welcoming Selby spread out all over the old barn. Students spelled "It's showtime" in cut-out letters. One said "Josh Chalk Jayhawk." Another had "FREEDOM" and "Selby 2010" printed over an American flag.
In the midst of all that, Witherspoon had gathered a familiar cheering section of 10 friends and family, many of whom had driven 18 hours from Baltimore through some nasty Midwestern weather.
"Determination runs in the family," Witherspoon said.
Selby entered the game at the 15:53 mark, and first thing, Self called a lob play meant to give Selby a chance at an easy bucket (or monster dunk). It didn't work out, but Selby swished his first college shot, a three-pointer from the left wing.
KU steadily built a 39-25 lead with 17:46 left in the second half, but then the Jayhawks struggled to generate offense against a tough and well-schooled USC squad. On the other end, Alex Stepheson and Vucevic pounded away at KU's front line, and the Trojans' quick guards began to find their way into the lane with ease.
But Selby kept bailing Kansas out. He had a team-high 18 points already when he received that pass from Morris and fired away.
KU led 69-68, and Allen Fieldhouse was going berserk.
"It was so loud I couldn't even hear myself talking," said Selby, who had 21 points, five rebounds and four turnovers. "I think we've got the best fans in college basketball."
This being December hoops, it may not have mattered that the shot went in, but it certainly felt right, poetic even.
"Certainly," Self said, "this moment for him made the last six months worthwhile."
USC blew its chance to win the game with five seconds left when guard Jio Fontan received an inbounds pass with his foot out of bounds. Turnover, and game over.
The third-ranked Jayhawks are 10-0, and the days of Self protecting Selby are dwindling fast.
"He hasn't had many days like that in practice," Self said. "But I also think he was trying to fit in. I think he forgot about fitting in today. Just go play."