Freshman McLemore continues climb in Jayhawks' win over Buckeyes
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The basketball trilogy between Kansas and Ohio State has taken on a green-eggs-and-ham type of theme in the past 13 months.
The Jayhawks can beat the Buckeyes in Lawrence, Kan., as they showed in December 2011.
They can beat them in New Orleans in the Final Four, as evident last March.
And the Jayhawks can beat Ohio State in Columbus, as they did Saturday in a showdown of top 10 teams.
Much appeared familiar besides the outcome in the latest meeting. Kansas started four seniors in its 74-66 victory and played the type of stout defense that has been a staple of Bill Self's 10 seasons as the Jayhawks' coach.
However, the new wrinkle to this Kansas team provided fresh evidence yesterday as to why it's not far-fetched to think the No. 9 Jayhawks (10-1) can return to the national championship game for a second consecutive season.
His name is Ben McLemore, and rumblings about the redshirt freshman's smooth game has been building from out on the prairie since he crashed the veteran Kansas lineup in game one.
Already known to basketball junkies, McLemore is now a secret no more to rest of the college hoops world after dropping 22 points on the Buckeyes in Saturday's win to lead the Jayhawks to their ninth consecutive win.
"I've never had anybody like this guy," said Self.
Self had him last season, but the 6-foot-5 guard from St. Louis had to redshirt after being deemed a partial academic qualifier by the NCAA in October. McLemore was allowed to practice during the second semester, but had to sit in the stands during the Final Four as Kansas beat Ohio State 64-62.
McLemore wasn't a spectator yesterday; he was spectacular.
"He makes plays you can't coach," Self said.
While the No. 7 Buckeyes (9-2) clanged shot after shot, McLemore showed a well-rounded offensive game that belied his inexperience. The 6-foot-5 leaper threw down an alley-oop dunk off an inbounds play, aggressively attacked from the wings with strength and quickness and showed a deft three-point touch from the perimeter in making three of six three-pointers.
"Ben can impact the game," Self said. "Ben is a shooter and a scorer. He's fun to coach because you can tinker around and draw up a bunch of plays that you can't for anybody else, and he'll jump up and make a play."
Ohio State coach Thad Matta doesn't have such a bailout luxury. He has an NBA-type scorer in Deshaun Thomas, but beyond that junior wingman, none of the other Buckeyes are a huge scoring threat.
The lack of consistent offense showed in Ohio State's 73-68 loss at Duke on Nov. 28, and Kansas exploited it during a second half Saturday when the Buckeyes shot 25 percent from the field after trailing 37-35 at the break.
Ohio State went 10 minutes between field goals in the second half as its five-game winning streak evaporated. Afterward Matta was reduced to saying he asked Santa to improve his team's jump shooting, although his team's 31-percent shooting for the game is nothing new against Kansas.
In Self's previous nine years at Kansas, the Jayhawks have ranked in the top 10 nationally in defensive field goal percentage eight times. They entered yesterday's game holding opponents to 35.1 percent shooting this season, including 31 percent from three-point range.
Besides Self's usual tough man-to-man defense, anchored by the nation's top shot-blocker in 7-footer Jeff Withey, the Jayhawks also have a moxie-laden group of grinders. Their experience showed yesterday when Ohio State led 31-23 with six minutes left in the first half and a roaring crowd of 19,049 threatened to blow the roof off Value City Arena.
"We have a good group of veterans that has been in tough situations before," Withey said. "We just bounced back. We just had to breathe a little bit."
McLemore had to take a deep breath a year ago when the NCAA declared him ineligible to play in his first season.
"He was sad, but he was alright," Self said. "He was like, 'I'll be OK.' He wanted to prove to everybody that he could do the job academically. That was his focus."
Instead of pouting, McLemore posted a grade-point average just short of 3.0 his first semester, then made the Big 12 honor roll in a second semester with a GPA above 3.0.
"It was a blessing to sit out last year," McLemore said. "I was able to practice in the second semester and learn from the seniors. I was in the gym working on my offense and defense."
Surrounded by four senior starters, McLemore tried to just fit in at the season's start. He took just seven shots, while scoring 14 points, in a 67-64 loss to Michigan State in Atlanta on Nov. 13.
"We want him to drive it, drive it, drive it," Self said.
McLemore has been taking taking that advice to heart of late. Prior to yesterday, he had averaged 19 points in his previous four games. He took 17 shots and made eight against the Buckeyes.
"I'm showing everybody I'm more aggressive," McLemore said.
His aggressiveness was never too wild yesterday, and his shooting touch from the outside continued to impress. McLemore has made 14 of 24 three-pointers in the past five games. And on defense, he held Ohio State's Lenzelle Smith Jr. to six points on three of 13 shooting.
"It was a great experience," McLemore said. "I was kind of nervous in the first half. But once I got up and down the court, all my nerves went away."
Kansas fans already knew they had a precocious freshman in McLemore. He's already scored more than 20 points in a game four times. He's on pace to set the school's freshman average scoring record of 14.6, set by Danny Manning in 1985.
After his performance yesterday, the nation also knows that the Jayhawks have something special in McLemore. Just ask the Ohio State Buckeyes, who are well-versed in all things Kansas.
Todd Jones is a senior reporter for The Columbus Dispatch.