Ben McLemore can do whatever he wants to do with a basketball in his hands and hardwood underneath his feet.
Now he knows it. And that’s the problem.
For everyone else.
In Saturday’s 90-54 win against a Colorado squad that was ranked nationally a few weeks ago, No. 9 Kansas dusted off its former Big 12 foe as if it were dirt on its shoulder. It was a lopsided effort from tip-off.
The Jayhawks immediately pressured the Buffaloes, who panicked and ultimately fell into a deeper hole. It was never a real contest.
Kansas’ best performance of the season, however, correlated with one of McLemore’s most productive outings of the year. He didn’t finish enough (6-for-16, 10-for-11 from the free throw line), but he was truly his only enemy.
He can get to the cup or create his own shot if, when and how he wants. And that’s a great starting point for any player. He also executes with a rare ease for a player so young.
The returning Jayhawks expected this version of McLemore. He was a partial qualifier last season, but the NCAA allowed him to practice.
The team’s 4-for-4 shell drills helped it stay fresh throughout the 2011-12 season. Without any real competition, however, McLemore took a more serious approach to those sessions.
“He turned that drill into an offensive drill for him instead of a defensive drill for us, and just tried to make plays every time he caught the ball and tried to score every time,” said senior Kevin Young, who finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds, a block and 2 steals. “That made us a lot better last year.”
This season’s stat sheets explain Kansas’ flaws more accurately than its nearly unblemished record.
In another year with another strong recruiting class and another set of impressive veterans, Bill Self’s program looks like a contender for its ninth consecutive Big 12 title. But stretches of dominance have followed bouts of mediocrity.
The Jayhawks struggled late in a 67-64 loss against Michigan State, their only defeat of the season. And Chattanooga led by eight at halftime in their next matchup.
“It just hit us that we’re at home, we’re losing at home,” Young said of that halfway deficit.
Since then, the Jayhawks have played with a fire they’d lacked in the first few games of the season. The new mission: punch them in the mouth early.
First-half scores in their next three games? 50-21 against Washington State; 39-25 against St. Louis; and 40-32 against San Jose State.
Against Colorado, they were simply dominant, much like their promising young star could be in the coming months.
The Jayhawks welcomed the talented Buffaloes to Allen Fieldhouse but tossed them out the front door in the opening minutes.
Jeff Withey (8 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocks) scored within seconds of the tip. In the suffocating blur that followed, Kansas seized a 10-1 edge and then led 25-8 with 11 minutes, 49 seconds to go. By then, the Buffaloes had forced nearly a turnover a minute.
A dejected Colorado squad kept fighting, but it felt the noose. At halftime, the Jayhawks led, 43-22. They’d forced 12 turnovers, shot 14-for-20 inside the 3-point line (mostly on fast breaks created by turnovers) and made 9 of 11 free throw attempts.
“When they were down, I think it was like 10-1 or something like that, you could tell that they were getting kind of frustrated with us,” Young said.
The onslaught never stopped.
But will it continue?
Before the Jayhawks kick off Big 12 play with a Jan. 9 matchup against Iowa State, they’ll face Belmont, Ohio State and Temple. They could -- should -- win all three games. And they could lose them, too, if they’re not prudent and strong for two halves.
It hasn’t been easy for the Jayhawks to maintain their intensity, Young admits. And that’s why they’ve wrestled with inconsistency.
But when McLemore elevates, the Jayhawks will follow him. Colorado knows that now.
It’s even more important for the freshman to understand that.
“I think it’s a big part of who we are, because we need him to score for us and to play the way he’s playing, it helps the whole team, brings energy to the team and it just gives us all confidence,” Young said.