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KU’s McLemore a sensation in the making

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, at 9:01 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, at 7:48 a.m.

No. 9 Kansas at No. 7 Ohio State

When: 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio

Records: Ohio State 9-1, Kansas 9-1

Radio: KFH 1240-AM, 98.7-FM


No. 9 Kansas at No. 7 Ohio State

FKevin Young6-8Sr.6.76.7
CJeff Withey7-0Sr.14.18.1
GTravis Releford6-6Sr.13.03.2
GBen McLemore6-5Fr.15.95.7
GElijah Johnson6-4Sr.9.6x-5.3

Kansas (9-1): If there was ever an opportune time for KU’s marquee non-conference game, this might be it. The Jayhawks have won eight straight and dominated in their last three contests, outscoring opponents by an average of 31 points per game. Expect senior Travis Releford to get an opportunity to guard Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas. Led by Jeff Withey’s nation-leading 5.4 blocks per game, Kansas ranks sixth in the country in defensive efficiency. On offense, Elijah Johnson is averaging more than seven assists per game in his last four games. KU leads the all-time series against Ohio State 7-3, including two wins last season and a 69-68 victory in Columbus on Dec. 23, 2000.

POhio StateHtYrPtsReb
FEvan Ravenel6-8Sr.6.64.9
FSam Thompson6-7So.7.94.0
CDeshaun Thomas6-7Jr.20.46.9
GLenzelle Smith Jr.6-4Jr.11.55.2
GAaron Craft6-2Jr.9.1x-4.8

Ohio State (9-1): Ohio State has won five straight after suffering its only loss at Duke on Nov. 28. The Buckeyes lost NBA first-round pick Jared Sullinger off last year’s team, which advanced to the Final Four before falling to Kansas. Coach Thad Motta has reloaded with a group that includes All-American candidate Deshaun Thomas, an inside-outside threat at the forward spot. KU coach Bill Self says Ohio State’s defense is its most impressive quality. The Buckeyes rank among the top 16 in offensive and defensive efficiency, according to advanced metrics. Beware KU ballhandlers — junior point guard Aaron Craft is a turnover-causing pest for opposing guards.

— Last spring, on a Saturday night in New Orleans, Ben McLemore entered the Louisiana Superdome and found a seat in the stands, not too far from the Kansas bench.

Here he was, his team playing in the Final Four, a semifinal barnburner against Ohio State, and McLemore was left to wonder: What if that was him out there driving against Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft? What could he have done against Ohio State’s Big Ten-style, swallow-the-whistles defense?

“I was in the stands … (but) what if I was out there?” said McLemore, a 6-foot-5 guard. “ What could I have done to help the team? And now, I’m out here, so now I gotta do the things I need to do.”

“Here” is Value City Arena on Ohio State’s campus, where No. 9 Kansas, 9-1, will take the court against No. 7 Ohio State, 9-1, at 3 p.m. Saturday. “Here” is finally making an impact for KU coach Bill Self after taking a redshirt last season, the result of being deemed a partial academic qualifier. “Here” is averaging 15.9 points and 5.7 rebounds, the leading scorer in a starting lineup that includes four seniors.

“Ben, we’ve seen him grow as a player already,” KU senior center Jeff Withey said.

In just 10 games, McLemore has become college basketball’s answer to “Gangnam Style” — a YouTube sensation waiting to happen. But today’s game brings another opportunity for growth, the chance for McLemore to introduce himself to the country in a nationally televised showdown.

“I haven’t experienced anything like this before; it’s my first year playing,” McLemore said. “I’ll just go out there with an aggressive mindset, and just go out there and have fun.”

McLemore’s early season surge wasn’t unexpected. Self spent most of the offseason praising McLemore’s skills and hard work in practice last season, when he was resigned to the KU scout team. Self, however, is quick to dispute the notion that McLemore’s early success is directly related to his year on the sideline.

It’s a little overrated, he says, because McLemore couldn’t even practice his first semester at Kansas. And when McLemore finally did get on the floor, Self likes to joke that he spent most of last spring making sure he led the nation in scout-team shots.

“He still hadn’t played yet like he can play,” Self said this month, before Kansas played Belmont. “Wait till he gets comfortable. That’s kind of how I look at it.

The production, though, is hard to ignore. For comparison: Former KU wing Brandon Rush averaged just 12.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in his first 10 games at Kansas; while Xavier Henry opened his freshman campaign by averaging 17.7 points and 3.8 rebounds his first 10 games.

“I’m still out here learning,” McLemore said. “I’m definitely getting ready and getting better each and every day.”

This week, Withey reflected back on McLemore’s performance against Michigan State on Nov. 13 in Atlanta. The Jayhawks’ freshmen were thrown into the fire in just their second game and KU suffered its first and only loss.

McLemore had 14 points that night. But he hoisted just seven shots. And Self left the Georgia Dome saying his young shooting guard had to be more assertive.

“When we played Michigan State,” Withey said. “I’d say they were a little shell-shocked, a little scared. And I’m sure they’re still gonna be scared on Saturday. But they have more experience underneath their belt, and that makes up for a lot.”

That’s the hope, anyway. Based on 10 games of anecdotal evidence, it’s not far-fetched to wonder if the most athletic player in the Superdome last spring was actually sitting in the chairback seats.

Now, more than eight months later, Kansas meets Ohio State again. Conventional wisdom would suggest that KU will need a big game from its four seniors, the players that have been here before. That may be true, Self says, but he’s certainly not lowering his expectations for McLemore.

“I’m expecting Ben to play great,” Self said, “Maybe he’ll help the seniors, because he doesn’t know any better. But we need to be on one accord and have a real tight huddle. And it’s our first road game … true road game. And our guys all think that they can handle it.

“And I’m not saying we can’t. But I do feel like it’ll be different for them. I think we’ll learn a lot from this experience.”

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