COLUMBUS, Ohio — 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 States 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, Im out here, so now I gotta do the things I need to do.
Here is Value City Arena on Ohio States 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, weve seen him grow as a player already, KU senior center Jeff Withey said.
In just 10 games, McLemore has become college basketballs answer to Gangnam Style a YouTube sensation waiting to happen. But todays game brings another opportunity for growth, the chance for McLemore to introduce himself to the country in a nationally televised showdown.
I havent experienced anything like this before; its my first year playing, McLemore said. Ill just go out there with an aggressive mindset, and just go out there and have fun.
McLemores early season surge wasnt unexpected. Self spent most of the offseason praising McLemores 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 McLemores early success is directly related to his year on the sideline.
Its a little overrated, he says, because McLemore couldnt 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 hadnt played yet like he can play, Self said this month, before Kansas played Belmont. Wait till he gets comfortable. Thats 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.
Im still out here learning, McLemore said. Im definitely getting ready and getting better each and every day.
This week, Withey reflected back on McLemores 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. Id say they were a little shell-shocked, a little scared. And Im sure theyre still gonna be scared on Saturday. But they have more experience underneath their belt, and that makes up for a lot.
Thats the hope, anyway. Based on 10 games of anecdotal evidence, its 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 hes certainly not lowering his expectations for McLemore.
Im expecting Ben to play great, Self said, Maybe hell help the seniors, because he doesnt know any better. But we need to be on one accord and have a real tight huddle. And its our first road game true road game. And our guys all think that they can handle it.
And Im not saying we cant. But I do feel like itll be different for them. I think well learn a lot from this experience.