COLUMBUS, Ohio — Bill Self stood deep inside the bowels of Value City Arena, around the corner from the Kansas locker room, just a few feet away from his latest basketball gift.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
It was nearly 30 minutes after Kansas 74-66 victory over No. 7 Ohio State on Saturday evening, a signature win for a team that needed to experience a little fire. But for a moment, Self couldnt stop talking about his gift all 6 feet 5 and 195 pounds of him.
Ben McLemore stood just a few feet away, wearing Kansas warmups, fresh off a 22-point performance in front of a packed house in his first ever road game.
My first time, McLemore said.
The ninth-ranked Jayhawks won for many reasons on Saturday. Senior guard Travis Releford shut down Ohio State leading scorer Deshaun Thomas. Senior Jeff Withey had another double-double. And the Jayhawks played tough the kind of toughness that Self demands.
But when McLemores name came up, Self flashed a sly little smile. And then shook his head for emphasis.
Ive never had anybody like this guy, he said.
College basketball is a cyclical world. Seniors leave. Freshmen arrive. And the program keeps revolving. Comparisons, of course, are inevitable. But as Self talked about McLemore on Saturday how his presence had changed the game the moment appeared to encapsulate the Jayhawks season thus far.
Self has never coached a KU guard with McLemores rare combination of skills. And thats a pretty good indicator that this group of Jayhawks may be able to compare to some of the better KU teams of recent vintage. That is what McLemore can do for Kansas. Thats what Saturdays victory did for the rest of the Jayhawks.
Now we know we got the same kind of team we always had, said senior guard Elijah Johnson, who finished with 13 points. Well fight back. Were not gonna just lay down for nobody.
The Jayhawks, who improved to 10-1, finally added a heavyweight to its growing list of victories. And for the third time in more than 12 months, the Jayhawks had Ohio States number. Last years victory at Allen Fieldhouse? The subsequent nail-biter at the Final Four in New Orleans? This was mere validation.
Self would say that this was Kansas best performance in the three games against Ohio State. But perhaps it was better to compare this game to Kansas only loss, against Michigan State last month in Atlanta. The Jayhawks had led that one late, too. But in the final minutes, KU had nobody that could step up and make a play.
On Saturday, the Jayhawks had McLemore, ready to embrace the moment after a month of maturation.
I was a little nervous, McLemore said. But thats what happens the first game away.
If McLemore was nervous, it didnt show much. By late in the second half, KU was throwing in-bound- play lobs to McLemore at will two resulted in five points and the Jayhawks were pulling away after a hard-fought first half.
Hes fun to coach, Self said. You can tinker around and draw up some plays you cant draw up for anybody else.
All week, Self wondered how his team would respond to this atmosphere. Would they have a tight huddle? This would be a test, he said. A real test.
Kansas was entering hostile territory for the first time. They were playing a ranked squad, a tough and physical Big Ten team. And maybe just maybe Self could learn something. That opportunity came midway through the first half, when Ohio State rolled off 14 straight points and took a 31-23 lead. The red-tinted arena came to life. And Self needed two timeouts to calm his squad.
Self, though, didnt have to say much.
We have a good group of vets, Withey said. Weve been in tough situations before. And we just bounced back.
In short, the huddle was tight enough. With Releford shadowing Thomas, and Withey anchoring the inside, the Jayhawks held Ohio State to just two field goals during a 16-minute stretch in the second half. After Ohio State had taken KU out of its comfort zone with some devastating pressure in the first half, the Jayhawks returned the favor in the second.
Coach Self is all about defense, Withey said, and we showed that today that were tough.
The Jayhawks now have a few days off for Christmas, some time to reflect. But for a night, the Jayhawks had gone to an opponents home court, and strutted off with the building in silence.
Its the best feeling in the world," Johnson said. You know, its the hardest game to play. Especially a good program, a team thats (ranked) better than you. And then to go to their house and be able to do that, thats big ball right there.