LAWRENCE — Ben McLemore had waited an extra year for his debut inside Allen Fieldhouse. Waited through a frustrating year on the sidelines after running into academic issues. Waited through Kansas’ run to the NCAA Tournament title game last season. Waited through another summer of workouts.
So on Tuesday night in the second half against Emporia State in the Jayhawks’ exhibition opener, as McLemore found himself floating toward the basket, he heard the voice of KU coach Bill Self in his head.
“Coach was just telling me I needed to crash the boards more often,” said McLemore, a redshirt freshman guard.
So McLemore took off, elevating toward the rim and hanging in the air for a split-second before finishing the two-handed putback.
“It came off,” McLemore said. “Perfect timing.”
By this point, the Jayhawks were well on their way to an 88-54 victory over Emporia State. But, of course, the final margin was of little matter on Tuesday.
This was Kansas’ exhibition opener, and there’s generally a certain rhythm to nights like this. KU’s newcomers use it as a chance to work out the preseason cobwebs and experience a game inside Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas fans pack into the old building and take mental notes on the latest crop of reinforcements. And for Kansas coach Bill Self, well, there’s usually a message or two to send out while KU drops the hammer on some sacrificial in-state school.
On Tuesday night, those messages appeared to be directed toward two players in particular: senior guard Elijah Johnson and freshman forward Perry Ellis. For Johnson, it meant losing his starting spot to sophomore Naadir Tharpe after he was, according to Self, “substantially late” to a class on Tuesday. For Ellis, it meant a message about having a more aggressive mindset — even after leading KU with 15 points and grabbing seven rebounds in his first game at Allen Fieldhouse.
“It’s not that he’s not playing hard,” Self said of Ellis. “He plays hard. But when you say ‘run’ and the guy can run faster after you yell, then he’s not running hard.”
When Self talks about Ellis, he’s mostly talking about all his freshmen. The Jayhawks played six scholarship freshmen on Tuesday — with forward Zach Peters still out with a shoulder injury.
Redshirt freshman Jamari Traylor finished with six points and four rebounds in 16 minutes, while starting at the four-spot. And Self held his highest praise for freshman forward Landen Lucas’ production (six points and nine rebounds in 12 minutes) and freshman guard Rio Adams’ defensive work.
“I kind of lost those jitters when Late Night came,” Adams said, “so I’m just ready to play and do what we gotta do.”
The expectations, of course, are higher for Ellis than they are for Adams or Lucas. And that makes his development all the more important. Ellis finished a perfect five for five from the floor on Tuesday, and his ability to finish around the basket was certainly on display. But Self’s message appears to have rubbed off on Ellis’ teammates.
“You see these numbers he has right now,” Lucas said, “but I feel like he could do even better than that.”
“As a team,” McLemore said, “we want him to do better, too.”
For Kansas, there are now bits and pieces of game film to analyze as the Jayhawks prepare for their second exhibition game against Washburn on Monday. For outsiders, that probably means some overanalyzing of Jeff Withey’s post development or the backup point-guard battle between Adams and Tharpe. For McLemore, it means a few more days before he can get back on the floor.
But for Self, it’s a few more practices to deliver the same message to his corps of young pups.
“I don’t think they know,” Self said, “that they can just let it go.”
Percentages: FG .358, FT .714. Three-Point Goals: 6-26.231 (Brown 4-7, Boutilier 1-2, Wright 1-5, Euler 0-1, Swank 0-2, Moore 0-4, Sights 0-5). Team Rebounds: 1. Blocked Shots: 0. Turnovers: 18 (Moore 5, Swank 3, Sights 3, Brown 2, Wright 2, Harris, Euler, Boutilier). Steals: 8 (Moore 3, Wright, Sights, Euler, Shaw, Swank). Technic al Fouls: none.
Percentages: FG .544, FT .621. Three-Point Goals: 8-21, .381 (Tharpe 2-2, White 2-4, Johnson 2-8, McLemore 1-2, Releford 1-3). Team Rebounds: 0. Blocked Shots: 1 (Releford). Turnovers: 15 (White 5, McLemore 3, Releford 2, Withey, Tharpe, Wwsley, Johnson, Lucas). Steals: 8 (Traylor 4, Releford, Adams, Wesley, Ellis). Technical Fouls: none.
Officials—Terry Oglesby, Bert Smith, KC Ely.