|Kansas has a budding star in freshman Ben McLemore. (Getty Images)|
Kansas coach Bill Self felt all of last season that this year's group would be a better team than the one from a year ago, the same one that ended up overachieving all the way to a national championship game appearance. The Jayhawks were overly reliant on two players: Big man Thomas Robinson, an eventual lottery pick, and point guard Tyshawn Taylor. The rest of the team featured a bunch of role players: Jeff Withey, Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young.
This Kansas team is geared more to winning a national title. They are still missing that alpha-dog (both T-Rob and Tyshawn brought toughness and leadership a year ago), but what they do have is a budding star in Ben McLemore.
There were plenty who said that the St. Louis native would never become a go-to guy, that he didn't possess the personality and the desire to be the top option. This was a guy who took a back seat to Brad Beal in the summers, but he's quickly matured and begun to understand that his talent stacks up with just about anyone in the country. McLemore is ultra-athletic. He's got a natural position as a two-guard -- and he shoots it with more consistency than many ever gave him credit (McLemore came into the game shooting 40 percent from 3 and wound up making 3-of-6 from deep against Ohio State).
With McLemore's emergence, it's allowed Elijah Johnson to be who he is -- a solid point guard. It's enabled Releford to be who he is -- a role guy whose most valuable attribute is his ability to defend. Self now has a big man in Withey who has begun to gain confidence on the offensive end, and is arguably the most dominant defensive presence in the entire country.
Kansas has multiple options. Ohio State basically has one -- and that's a major reason why the Jayhawks went into Columbus and came away with a 74-66 victory.
Deshaun Thomas can score the ball with just about anyone, in a variety of ways. But Thad Matta still hasn't found a reliable sidekick for the 6-foot-7 forward. For a while in the first half, it was sophomore guard Shannon Scott. At times this season, it's been Lenzelle Smith. At times, it's been Aaron Craft and even long and talented wing LaQuinton Ross. Athletic forward Sam Thompson had his moments on Saturday afternoon.
But none of them have been consistent. It's simple to game plan against Ohio State right now. Stop Thomas.
Thomas was 4-of-11 from the field against Kansas and finished with 16 points. That's just not enough for the Buckeyes to beat Top 10 teams. The Buckeyes had yet to prove much prior to Saturday. Their most impressive victory was at a casino in Connecticut against a mediocre Washington club. Kansas, on the other hand, had blasted a Colorado team that was in the Top 25 by 36 points in Lawrence. Then the Jayhawks pounded Belmont by 29 at Phog Allen, followed by another near 30-point blowout at home against Richmond.
The naysayers were claiming that the victories came on their home floor, though, and it was still uncertain whether this team was tough enough to go into a hostile environment and come away with a win. Self was likely wondering the same.
OK, now we've answered that one after Kansas took care of another Top 10 team, Ohio State.
The Jayhawks lone loss came way back on Nov. 13, the second game of the season, against Michigan State down in Atlanta. It was a game that KU should have won. Self was still figuring this team out, trying to mold McLemore into "The Guy" on this team. McLemore led the Jayhawks with 22 points against Ohio State and the his teammates all filled their roles. Young was active, provided energy and finished with double-digit rebounds, Withey collected another double-double, his fifth of the season. Johnson wasn't spectacular, but was solid on both ends of the court -- and Releford & Co. did a nice job on Thomas.
Self will still need more from his bench going forward, but just 11 games into the season, he has quickly established roles, found his top scoring option and now also discovered his players may be tougher than he anticipated.