Ben McLemore can not see the future, or maybe he just doesn’t want to. The future means choices and questions and days that probably won’t include the joy of an afternoon inside Allen Fieldhouse.
On late Saturday afternoon, after McLemore had made history in the old barn, he walked out of the Kansas locker room with head phones on his head, sitting slightly askew. He stopped at the front of a long autograph line and, with pen in hand, began signing.
This postgame autograph session is routine around these parts. And on most days, McLemore is the last KU player in this hallway. But Saturday, of course, was not most days, and McLemore, a freshman guard, is not most players.
Just an hour earlier, McLemore had finished with 36 points in No. 6 Kansas’ 91-65 bludgeoning of West Virginia in front of 16,300 fans. It was the stuff of legend, a 20-year-old freshman breaking Danny Manning’s freshman scoring record — and needing just 15 shots to do it.
“After a while, Ben caught on fire,” KU senior Elijah Johnson said. “He’s still on fire.”
Exactly 28 years to the day that Manning dropped 35 points on Oklahoma State and a senior guard named Bill Self, McLemore dropped Manning from the record books.
“He’s a great player, and one of the best players to play at the University of Kansas,” McLemore said. “And just breaking that record, knowing that I did something great for the University is just great. I’m just happy.”
The Jayhawks (25-4 and 13-3 in the Big 12) won their sixth straight game — further removing themselves from a three-game February blip — and they are now just two victories away from clinching their ninth straight Big 12 title.
But here’s the question underlining McLemore’s brilliance on Saturday afternoon: On Monday night, the Jayhawks will take the court against Texas Tech on senior day. And McLemore, a potential top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, may be playing his final game in the Fieldhouse as well.
“We’re not gonna talk about this until the season’s over,” KU coach Bill Self said. “But he could be obviously running out there the last time, too.”
In that context, McLemore’s performance on Saturday was one for history. No Kansas freshman had ever scored like this. (We’ll pause to note that rules prohibited Wilt Chamberlain from playing his first year on campus.) And no freshman had ever been this dominant — yet so selective at the same time. For his 30 minutes, before he came out to a standing ovation, McLemore conducted a master class on efficient scoring. He was five of six from the three-point line, 12 of 15 overall, and seven of nine from the free-throw line.
“As efficient as I’ve seen a guard be,” Self said.
Earlier this season, of course, Self had said that McLemore would need to become something close to an “assassin” if the Jayhawks were to reach their true ceiling. But for so many stretches, it wasn’t quite in McLemore’s DNA.
He was a precocious talent, a future NBA lottery pick. But he wasn’t an assassin. Even last Monday, McLemore was held to just seven points in the Jayhawks’ victory at Iowa State. In KU’s last four road games, he’s been held to just 11 points per contest.
“I’d like to see him be able to take the show on the road, so to speak,” Self said, “which I know he’s very capable of doing.”
On Saturday, McLemore showed signs of a killer instinct. Late in the second half, when the record appeared in reach, McLemore was quietly trying to find out how many points he needed to eclipse Manning. The answer would come in a quick meeting with Johnson while McLemore headed to the bench for his last breather. A few minutes later, the record-breaking bucket came on a short jumper with 5:37 left.
After the game, Johnson sat next to McLemore and retold the story. It was a senior sitting next to a freshman, but Johnson couldn’t stop gushing.
“I love this kid, man,” Johnson said. “I never tell him. I think he knows, though. But I learned a lot from him. I can honestly say I learned a lot from him. He’s a hard worker. You would think that he’s the worst player in the gym the way he approach it every day.”
On Monday night, Johnson and Kansas’ fellow seniors will play their last game inside Allen Fieldhouse. On Saturday, McLemore wasn’t ready to consider that he might be doing the same.
“We just gotta focus on what’s in front of us right now,” McLemore said. “And my focus is just, go out there and play ball — and have these seniors happy and leave out with a great year.”