The old-school manual said he was committing a coaching sin, and Bill Self knew this.
It was Sunday evening inside the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. The No. 1-seed Kansas Jayhawks were fending off No. 8-seed North Carolina after a horrendous first half. And Self had relegated his leading scorer, freshman Ben McLemore, to the bench for the latter part of the second half.
“I’ve talked to enough people (and) coaches over the years,” Self said, “that say you don’t do that with your best player or leading scorer.”
Then again, the NCAA Tournament is no place to worry about basketball customs. McLemore finished the game 0 for 9 with two points. And the Jayhawks stormed back in the second half with McLemore on the bench. As sophomore Naadir Tharpe played alongside four seniors, KU buried North Carolina 70-58 and advanced to the South Regional semifinals on Friday in Arlington, Texas.
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“We were actually better during that stretch,” Self said. “And Ben was the biggest cheerleader we had.”
But as Kansas regroups for a Sweet 16 matchup with No. 4-seed Michigan at 6:37 p.m. Friday, the Jayhawks, of course, are hoping that McLemore can be more than a cheerleader.
For the last two weeks, the Jayhawks have been opportunists on offense, picking up stellar performances from an assorted concoction of options. Freshman Perry Ellis broke out in the Big 12 tournament. Tharpe and senior Travis Releford stepped up against North Carolina. Senior Jeff Withey has added on to his consistent production.
But here are the numbers from McLemore’s last four games: seven points per game while making 8 of 26 shots.
“He’s gotta see the ball go in the hole,” Self said.
For Kansas, McLemore’s struggles underline a recurring concern. For the last four months, the Jayhawks’ offense has been a solid unit with the ability to play great on certain nights. But with two potential heavyweight clashes looming at Cowboys Stadium, the Jayhawks will need their leading scorer at full offensive capacity.
For now, the Jayhawks are ranked 31st in the nation in offensive efficiency, a number that normalizes scoring on a points-per-possession basis. That ranks 13th among teams still in the NCAA Tournament, and it also highlights a fear rooted in history. While KU ranks fifth in the nation in defensive efficiency, the last 10 national champs have all ranked in the top 20 in offense and defense.
On Sunday, McLemore said it wasn’t that he felt tight during the Jayhawks’ first two NCAA Tournament games. He just wasn’t making shots.
“I wasn’t tight at all,” McLemore said. “… The ball wasn’t going in for me at that time. But I just gotta get back in the gym and start shooting. And I didn’t really let that bother me.”
Self is confident that McLemore will be fine after a couple of days to decompress. And Releford, who had 22 points against North Carolina, said he didn’t envision more gaudy offensive numbers from himself this weekend. Releford’s thoughts were, in part, based in humility. But he also expects the old McLemore to be back in time for this weekend.
“I’m not expecting a great game like that on the offensive end,” Releford said. “Somebody else can step up. Ben … it can be his weekend. He can carry this team through this next game. So hopefully it is (his time).”
In the moments after Sunday’s victory, McLemore called it a “great night.” He had missed nine shots and scored two points. And he was 0 for 8 from three-point range in the NCAA Tournament. But Kansas had won. And even though he spent most of the second half on the bench, his team was moving on.
“It definitely wasn’t hard,” McLemore said. “They had a lot of momentum with the squad they had in there, and at that time, coach didn’t want to try to mess up the momentum. I still was cheering my team on.”
A moment later, McLemore added one more thing. Yes, he still felt confident.
“Any shooter,” McLemore said. “One shot, they get their mood going.”