There’s something about the month of March that signals to some college basketball teams that it’s time to elevate their level of play. Last year, the Kansas Jayhawks did just that by ending the regular season hot, leading into the NCAA Tournament. On Saturday, they looked to be at it again, as they played above the rim in routing West Virginia 91-65 at Allen Fieldhouse.
The win keeps the Jayhawks in control of their own destiny to capture another conference title, heading into Monday’s Senior Night against Texas Tech, before ending the season at Baylor next Saturday.
The performance was showcased excellent team play on both ends, but the star of the day was redshirt freshman Ben McLemore, who broke Danny Manning’s freshman scoring record for a game, by scoring a career high 36 points on 12 of 15 shooting, including five of six from beyond the arc. He added seven rebounds and four assists and there was a sense that had he not gone to the bench at the 5:21 mark, he could have had 40 or 50 points.
“Ben was great,” head coach Bill Self said. “It’s good to see because Ben has labored lately and he’s been a different guy for us most nights and certainly, we look forward to hopefully having an aggressive McLemore the rest of the way.”
His performance ignited the Jayhawks in the second half, as they ran off of missed shots and turnovers by the Mountaineers (13-16, 6-10), which led to break away dunks and lobs, which resulted in alley oops reminiscent of 2008, when Kansas (25-4, 13-3) frequently played above the rim.
It was a game where everyone raised their level of play. Five night after scoring a career high 39 points, senior guard Elijah Johnson played a solid all around game, scoring 12 points and dishing out 10 assists to go with five rebounds and a vicious dunk off a lob from Naadir Tharpe, who scored eight points and handed out eight assists off the bench.
Johnson’s performance added fuel to the memories of his hot streak towards the end of last season and has many envisioning a repeat in 2013, as he’s shaken off a rough stretch through the middle of the season, where the senior leader had struggled.
“Elijah is playing so much better,” Self said. “When he’s locked in and thinking about the right things such as being aggressive, that kind of stuff, as opposed to thinking too much and reacting slow, he’s great. I thought he was aggressive today.”
Senior center flirted with another triple-double, scoring 14 points, hauling down 10 rebounds and blocking nine shots.
Overall, the Jayhawks know as the month of March has begun that the time to raise their level of play and it’s all started simply by making shots and winning close games that have molded the team’s character.
“I think we’re playing a lot better, we seem to be playing with more confidence,” Self said. “It’s amazing, winning a couple of tough road games that could have gone either way can do for a team’s confidence, where if it goes the other way, it could certainly drain it. But, our guys seem to be more confident right now.”