- Jason King
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kansas leading scorer Ben McLemore is one of the main reasons the Jayhawks won a ninth straight Big 12 title and remained near the top of the Associated Press poll for most of the season.
But in Sunday's round-of-32 victory over North Carolina, KU's freshman phenom was forced into a new role.
"Ben," KU coach Bill Self said, "became our biggest cheerleader."
Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, motivating and encouraging his teammates from the sideline was about the only thing McLemore had to contribute to KU's 70-58 victory. McLemore missed each of his nine field goal attempts and was benched for all but six minutes in the second half of the come-from-behind win.
"Thank God he has a week to prepare for this next one," KU center Jeff Withey said after the game. "We need him to be firing on all cylinders."
Indeed, beating Michigan in the Sweet 16 on Friday will be darn near impossible unless the old Ben McLemore resurfaces at Cowboys Stadium.
If McLemore had only one bad game, his off night against the Tar Heels would have been excused and all but forgotten by now. Unfortunately, though, poor shooting performances by McLemore have become a trend in recent weeks. The 6-foot-4 guard is averaging just seven points in his past four games while shooting 30.8 percent from the field. Those figures are well below his season averages of 15.8 points on 49.4 percent shooting.
McLemore was quizzed about his slump multiple times during Thursday's interview sessions.
"It's been a struggle," McLemore said, "but I don't let things get to me. I've just been talking to myself, talking to the coaches. They just tell me to play free -- the same way I've been playing since the beginning of the year.
"I've got to go out there and play free, with an open mind, and have fun."
Self said McLemore's issues are common for freshmen -- especially those who spend most of their season under a national magnifying glass.
A year ago at this time, McLemore was an obscure freshman whom no one cared about, buzzed about or spoke about during his redshirt season in Lawrence. Twelve months later, the soft-spoken shooter from St. Louis can't escape the spotlight that has only gotten brighter during the NCAA tournament.
Some scouts have predicted that McLemore will be the No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft. Last week he was on a regional cover of Sports Illustrated, and he and Self took part in a national television interview.
"I think this is all new for him," Self said. "The attention is new, the stage is new. I think he's growing into it. It's been good for him.
"I've said a few things to him. I hope I've done a decent job of freeing his mind up. He needs to realize he's a terrific player. He's had a great year. He needs to go have fun and enjoy the opportunity and not look back and say, 'What if?'"
McLemore has been trying all week to do just that.
But it hasn't been easy.
Fans posting on Internet message boards and radio talk show hosts have questioned whether McLemore is playing poorly because he knows NBA scouts are watching his every move, thus creating added pressure. Others have opined that McLemore is mentally checked out and focusing more on the money he will make as a pro.
Because he's passive and soft-spoken off the court, McLemore's toughness has been questioned, too. Could it be a sign of weakness that McLemore is floundering -- and not flourishing -- in high-stakes games?
McLemore said he has heard all the gossip. Some of it makes him chuckle.
"I've just missed some shots, man," he said. "It's as simple as that. That's all it is. There wasn't anything going on outside of basketball, as far as people talking to me and getting in my ear. I just had a few off nights.
"When I start missing shots people think something's wrong or that something's going on away from the court. That wasn't the deal at all."
McLemore said he spent several nights after practice this week taking extra shots with assistant coach Joe Dooley, who noticed a glitch in McLemore's mechanics. McLemore usually grips the ball with his fingers spread, but Dooley pointed out that, lately, his fingers have been close together when he's shooting.
"That's probably why my shots were long," McLemore said. "These last couple of practices I've been looking good, playing aggressive and shooting the ball good. I need to get my form back, my groove back. I need to get back in rhythm."
The Jayhawks are confident he will.
"I don't think he's dropped his head too much," point guard Elijah Johnson said. "I know he's been a little frustrated. The biggest thing that we've been saying is, 'We support you no matter what. You've carried us a long way, and we know you'll be there when we really need you. When you're struggling, we're not going to stray, so keep the confidence.'
"I think he has."
Self certainly hopes so. The worst thing a player can do, Self said, is to let a poor performance in one game affect the next one. Self likened McLemore's situation to a hitter who has struck out three times in a row. If he steps up to the plate fretting over his three previous at-bats, he'll likely strike out again. But if he knows he's going to get a hit, he usually will.
"That's what Ben's situation is," Self said. "He has to know he's going to get a hit. I believe he'll rise to the occasion."