published Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Kansas has talent, experience for title

  • photo
    Kansas' Ben McLemore (23) shoots over Texas' Sheldon McClellan (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Austin, Texas.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

After suffering a 74-66 home loss to Kansas last month, Ohio State basketball coach Thad Matta praised the Jayhawks thusly:

"Just the leadership they have — I haven't had four seniors in about eight years. And [redshirt freshman] Ben McLemore is as good as anybody in the country."

As the college basketball season slips past its halfway point this week, Matta's analysis may sum up No. 3 Kansas as well as anybody could in 25 words or less.

With four senior starters to help guide the outrageously talented McLemore through the rough spots, KU coach Bill Self not only has the experience to reach the Final Four for a second straight season but also is riding a 15-game winning streak heading into tonight's game at Kansas State.

"This team has to learn how to win ugly games and be tough," said Self, who never seems satisfied despite averaging 30 wins a season, earning one national championship (2008) and playing for another (last season) in his nine full seasons at KU.

"That's what made last year's team so good."

The high-flying McLemore and his 16.4 scoring average have certainly been a nice addition to this year's team, but it's those seniors -- point guard Elijah Johnson, wing Travis Releford, crafty forward Kevin Young and 7-foot center Jeff Withey -- who provide the 16-1 Jayhawks' heart and soul.

"With that age and experience, they think they're supposed to win," said University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach John Shulman, who remains the only coach to lead KU by as many as 12 points in the second half this season, though his Mocs ultimately lost by 14 (69-55) inside the Jayhawks' historic Allen Fieldhouse.

"They've got speed, they can shoot, defend and their guards can be aggressive on the perimeter because Withey (4.6 blocks a game) is going to block or bother anything that comes inside."

Excepting a 67-64 loss to Michigan State in the Georgia Dome in mid-November, the formula has worked to perfection. Deep and talented, Kansas has an average victory margin of nearly 17 points a game, despite having already faced four Big 12 foes and national powers such as MSU, Ohio State and Temple.

Then there's the chiseled, 6-foot-5 McLemore, who sat out last season due to NCAA academic issues but is coming on so fast that he recently scored 33 points -- including an overtime-forcing 3-pointer -- in a win over Iowa State.

"McLemore's incredible," Shulman said. "He's got to be a top-four or -five pick in the NBA draft."

According to the Jan. 17 edition of NBADraft.net, Shulman's a few spots too low. The website has him going No. 1.

Nor do his older teammates seem to mind the attention the newbie is receiving. When McLemore sprained an ankle last week against Baylor, Johnson said, "Ben just doesn't deserve to be hurt right now or cheated out of playing. He's been cheated out of playing long enough."

You're never sure why the NCAA rules as it does on academic issues, and McLemore's situation appeared as if it could have gone either way before he was ruled a partial qualifier in the fall of 2011.

But he's eligible now, and if he and the rest of the Jayhawks stay healthy through March, Shulman believes his Mocs may have owned a 12-point second-half lead on the eventual national champs.

"I don't know that there's a great team out there right now," the UTC coach said. "But I do know I haven't seen a better one all year than Kansas. They definitely have everything you need to win it all."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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