ATLANTA — Back in December, coming off the biggest game of his young career, Ben McLemore stood in the center of the Value City Arena’s visiting locker room surrounded by his Kansas teammates. He began to dance, his feet alternating Ali-style forward and back, lips pursed in self-confident satisfaction. His teammates followed suit.
That caught-on-video moment unfolded immediately after McLemore, the Jayhawks’ redshirt freshman who is projected to a top NBA Draft pick, officially announced his presence on college basketball’s national scene.
Sure, there were quality outings earlier in the season — he had played well versus No. 21 Michigan State (14 points), Chattanooga (25), Oregon State (21) and Colorado (24) — but his 22-point outing against then-No. 7 Ohio State on the road produced a distinctive idea early on: this freshman could significantly affect the national championship race.
Article continues below ...
Fast forward through the accolades and 30-point games, and the 6-foot-5 guard’s Jayhawks are right where most thought they would be back in December — boasting a No. 1 seed and playing in the Sweet 16.
McLemore is no longer dancing lead, though.
In his first two NCAA tournament games, he totaled only 13 points on 2-of-14 shooting. In Kansas’ third-round matchup against North Carolina, a game which it trailed at the half, McLemore did not make a single field goal. He finished with two points. Eventually, he deferred to his elder teammates to carry the Big 12 champs to a 70-58 victory.
At this point, Kansas coach Bill Self can approach the next round of games in one of two ways:
• Going against one of the most explosive offenses in the country (Michigan, second nationally in offensive efficiency), his leading scorer and most talented player has struggled in his first — and likely last — NCAA tournament appearance. Despite his superior shooting ability and athleticism, the shots are not falling and even simplistic plays run for him have come up empty. How significant a role should he play going forward?
• When it comes to McLemore, the Jayhawks are playing with house money. Despite his struggles and virtual nonexistence at times on offense, the team has recovered from two halftime deficits in commanding spurts. It has shown it can win without him. But this is the same player who tore apart eventual tourney teams Colorado, Ohio State, Kansas State (once), Oklahoma State (once) and Iowa State earlier in the season. If he can rediscover that scoring touch, the path to Atlanta becomes much less narrow.
The truth for Self likely falls somewhere in between, but his team can ill afford to play first-half possum against an explosive Michigan squad. It might not get comeback opportunity.
McLemore is still the same player, perhaps better, he was back in December, a 20-point performance against a Big Ten power in his rearview mirror, arms rhythmically pumping, the Jayhawks following along. Right now, though, he’s just one of a few standouts who need to put their early-round mundanity behind them in the Sweet 16:
Ryan Kelly, Duke
His 36-point explosion against Miami aside, which seems more and more like an adrenaline-fueled anomaly, Kelly has shot only 35 percent since returning from a foot injury that caused him to miss 13 games. He has not scored in double-digits in his past four games, including a one-point clunker against Creighton. That’s not going to cut it for coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team against the likes of Michigan State or (potentially) Louisville.
Kelly, when healthy, is a mismatch for most teams, a 6-foot-11 forward who can step outside and stretch the defense. His mere presence creates space for guards Quinn Cook, Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon to work with and, similarly, room for center Mason Plumlee to operate in. The Spartans (sixth nationally in defensive efficiency) will have the size and discipline to handle Duke on the defensive end if Kelly is not producing.
Asking for another Miami performance is unrealistic, but the Blue Devils will likely need a season average performance (13 points, five rebounds) from their senior stretch-four.
Peyton Siva, Louisville
It’s tough to find faults among Louisville’s blowout wins over North Carolina A&T and Colorado State — the defense was characteristically disruptive and the offense reached the 75-point mark twice. However, moving forward, Siva will likely to be more efficient offensively. The senior guard was 8 of 21 from the field in the opening rounds.
This is not to say Siva has played poorly — in fact, he’s facilitated the offense well (13 assists) and been a pest defensively — but as the stakes rise and competition becomes fiercer, coach Rick Pitino will likely need him to take some of the backcourt scoring pressure off freelance artist Russ Smith.
One note to mention: Siva has not attempted a single free throw this tournament and averages only two trips to the line per game this season. As an 86 percent free-throw shooter, the Cardinals may need him in attack mode off the bounce to generate some easy points.
Kenny Boynton, Florida
Boynton is in the same boat as Siva. He’s a senior guard with plenty of tournament experience who has largely deferred to his teammates in two “easy” wins. His tourney numbers are not overwhelming (18 points, three rebounds, two assists), but coach Billy Donovan has not asked Boynton to be a star, going to his bench early and often.
As the most balanced team in the country, statistically speaking, Florida does not need a 25-point outing from Boynton to win. Instead, efficiency is key. The senior is shooting just 33 percent on 15 shots in the tournament and has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. He can improve in those areas starting with Florida Gulf Coast on Friday.
Nik Stauskas, Michigan
Much in the form of Ryan Kelly, Stauskas, the Wolverines’ 6-foot-6 freshman sharpshooter, helps stretch the floor for his team but has not found the scoring touch this postseason. Dating back to Michigan’s loss to Wisconsin in the second round of the Big Ten tournament, Stauskas has hit on only six of his past 24 shots (25 percent) — more than 20 percentage points below his season average. If it weren’t for his perfect 7 of 7 from the charity stripe, he would not have even hit 20 total points over this stretch of three games.
Barring another surprising upset from Florida Gulf Coast (not a brilliant assumption at this rate), the Wolverines are positioned to face two top-five defenses just to reach the Final Four in Atlanta.
Stauskas’ production has not been a necessity with Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and even Mitch McGary spearheading tourney blowouts. That will not likely be the case if Burke & Co., want to cut down the nets.