Sunday January 31st, 2016

LAWRENCE, Kans. — Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse was about the past: the very long ago and the very recent. The winningest program in the history of college basketball, Kentucky, was visiting the second-winningest program, Kansas, and at halftime, Kansas held a ceremony in which the game’s commandments were unveiled at center court of its holiest cathedral.

Six years ago, a Kansas alum paid $4.3 million at a Sotheby’s auction to purchase the original 13 rules of basketball as written by its inventor, James Naismith, in 1891. Naismith went on to found the first basketball program at Kansas in 1898, and this ceremony was a celebration of the fact that the rules would be permanently housed in a museum annex to Allen Fieldhouse. In a stirring video montage, the sold-out crowd heard the only known recording of Naismith’s voice, from a 1939 radio program in which he recounted basketball’s beginnings.

“The whole thing started,” he said, “with a couple of peach baskets I put up in a gym 48 years ago.”

Scoring was covered in Naismith’s original rule No. 8. It was written for play with peach-basket rims whose bottoms were still intact:

A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edges, and the opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal.

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​Naismith remained in the sport long enough to witness the era where the basket-bottoms were cut out, but he could not have imagined the way it looks now: That a meeting between No. 4 Kansas and No. 20 Kentucky would involve a national cable television audience, the visitors flying in on a chartered plane, the two head coaches making more than $10 million combined. Or that a small child dressed up as Lil’ Naismith—complete with suit, horn-rimmed glasses, holding a peach basket—would be a hit on something called a video scoreboard, or that the Jayhawks’ crowd, aided by an ear-splitting club remix of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” could get the Fieldhouse’s decibel-meter up to 118.5 coming out of a timeout with 37 seconds left in regulation of a game that would go to overtime.

Or that the defining bucket of Kansas’s 90–84 victory would be one not thrown or batted from the grounds, but rather one that was dunked or yammed or jammed—terms that did not exist in 1891. Naismith didn’t even have dribbling in his original rules, so how could he fathom anything like the play in which Wayne Selden Jr., a 6'5" Jayhawks guard from Massachusetts, the state where the document was drafted, drove the right side of the lane off the bounce, rose into the air at the same time as Skal Labissiere, a 6'11" freshman from Haiti, and slammed the ball through Labissiere’s hand and then through the hoop? That was the play that put Kansas up 80–78 with 3:11 left in overtime, a lead it would never relinquish.

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If one focused only on that moment, it was about Selden Jr. making an adjustment after being blocked on his previous drives.

“I had to try something different,” he said.

Fellow guard Devonte’ Graham explained what that was: "He decided to go over on somebody’s head."

If one focused only on Selden Jr.’s complete game, it was about him scoring a career-high 33 points, compensating for a no-show performance by senior forward Perry Ellis (who battled foul trouble in the first half) and outdueling Kentucky star Tyler Ulis, who dominated the first 20 minutes. Selden Jr. did most of his work late, scoring 20 points in the second half and overtime.

“When it got to the teeth of the game, Wayne took over,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.

Selden Jr., rather than talking about playing in the moment, admitted that he had been dwelling on the very recent past.

“I had a little more incentive in my head before the game started, [because I was] thinking about the past,” he said. “I usually don’t think about the past, but [in this case it was about] how we’ve been flat.”

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

What was nagging him was that Kansas had lost three of its previous five games, stumbled to 16–4 and stopped looking like a national title contender. Selden Jr. felt like the Jayhawks had come into the season with a headstart after winning gold as the U.S. representative in the World University Games in Korea—and now they were stagnating and letting everyone else catch up.

Selden Jr., a former role player turned go-to-guy as a junior, knew he was part of the problem. In those losses to Iowa State, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, he averaged just 9.7 points and shot 31.6% from long range, well off the All-America pace he’d been on in November and December. It was also well off the pace he’d been on in Korea, when he scored a team-high 18.9 points per game in a third-guard role, and looked like he might emerge as Kansas’s most important offensive player, despite having bowed out of the 2015 NCAA tournament in the most miserable way possible: by scoring zero points (on 0-of-5 shooting) in a Round of 32 loss to Wichita State.

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The version of Selden Jr. that showed up on Saturday gave Self a flashback to the medal rounds in Gwangju.

“That looked like the Wayne I saw in Korea,” Self said.

Selden Jr. was the total package against Kentucky—he drove for that dunk over Labissiere, he drove to draw eight free-throw attempts, he was 3-of-5 from long-range including a clutch corner three in the final minute of regulation, he played a team-high 44 minutes and only turned it over twice. Kentucky had specific instructions for how Selden Jr. should be defended—“We were playing Selden no-catch,” coach John Calipari said—but he was too elusive for them to follow those instructions. Kansas couldn’t follow its plan to contain Ulis’s dribble penetration, either, necessitating a switch to a triangle-and-two defense late in the game, but at least the Jayhawks found an answer. The Wildcats didn’t, and Calipari was left to blame himself for having players who "do not know how to win a game."

Kansas has its problems—its on-ball defense against quick guards is atrocious, its wing and frontcourt rotation is still in flux as we enter February—but it does know how to win in Allen Fieldhouse. Its three-overtime victory over Oklahoma on Jan. 4 is college basketball’s reigning game of the year. Saturday’s win over Kentucky almost had a classic moment, but Frank Mason III’s halfcourt heave at the buzzer in regulation hit the back rim. It will go down instead as a grudge match (with 53 personal fouls) that didn’t live up to Naismith’s nasally proclamation, in the halftime ceremony’s video, that basketball was “a nice, clean game.” It is a sport whose rulebook and athletes have evolved. A sport in which a Kansas guard, in 2016, can ease his mind and revive his reputation by muscling his way toward the basket off the dribble and dunking on somebody’s head.

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