With Ben McLemore playing as he did for the first few months of the season, it seemed as if the freshman wing would be the one expected to lead the Kansas Jayhawks back to the Final Four.
But if the second half of Sunday’s 70-58 win over South Region 9-seed North Carolina reveals anything, it’s that Bill Self’s veterans are both willing and capable of leading the way to Atlanta.
Senior Travis Releford, who Self refers to as “the rock” of this group, scored 22 points and grabbed seven rebounds to lead the way for the Jayhawks, scoring 13 of his points in the second half.
Fellow seniors Jeff Withey (14 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots) and Kevin Young (ten points, nine rebounds) weren’t far behind, combining to grab 13 of Kansas’ 20 second-half rebounds. And not to be forgotten is sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe, who added 12 points in 27 minutes off the bench.
Next up for Kansas is 4-seed Michigan on Friday night in Arlington, Tex. P.J. Hairston led the way for North Carolina, which entered the game 2-0 all-time against 1-seeds in round of 32 match-ups (beating Oklahoma in 1990 and Stanford in 2000), with 15 points and nine rebounds.
Turnovers were a major problem for the Jayhawks in the first half, as the combination of 12 turnovers and 25% shooting resulting in a 30-21 Tar Heel lead at the half. McLemore struggled throughout, shooting 0-of-9 from the field and scoring just two points before Self made the decision early in the second half to go with his more experienced perimeter options.
An immensely gifted talent, McLemore is essentially a “reluctant superstar” for Kansas; even if his shots are falling he doesn’t have the temperament of a take-charge player…yet. Is that a mindset he can pick up with more experience? Without a doubt.
But in the one-and-done format that is the NCAA tournament, there isn’t time to wait for such a transformation to occur. Hence the importance of Kansas’ veterans, and on Sunday afternoon they did what championship contenders need their experienced players to do this time of the year.
As a result Kansas shook off their first half struggles, putting forth an excellent performance in the game’s final 20 minutes.