There is an assumption that at some point this season the best freshman Bill Self has ever coached at Kansas will turn into the closer for Kansas. Ben McLemore does so many things so well. He glides across the court, rises without effort, has a jumper that makes scouts eyes twinkle and a smile as bright as his future. So at some point along the way he’ll get a killer instinct and close like Kobe. It’s the natural progression.
Only it’s not. And it doesn’t have to be.
If we learned anything on Sunday during KU’s 69-62 survival against those tough sons of guns from Temple, it’s that the Jayhawks can sense trouble trying to sneak through the door and they’ll slam the door in its face.
Trouble was a four-point Temple lead with about six minutes left after Khalif Wyatt had just sunk two free throws. It probably felt a lot like Wyatt had the ball on a string and the whistle in his corner. No matter how hard they tried not to, Wyatt could get the Jayhawks to lean just enough to either open up a passing lane, a shooting window or send him to the line. It felt like he was taking control, and the Jayhawks could have thrown up their hands and started thinking of postgame excuses.
Instead, Elijah Johnson attacked. Two straight possessions, Johnson put his head down and got to the rim. And just like that it was a tie ballgame.
A year ago that was Tyshawn Taylor making those drives. Taylor always had a knack for sensing when he needed to abandon the offense and just get to the rim. Now it’s Johnson’s turn to assume that role, and he’s proving he can manage.
Of course the Owls responded to Johnson’s mini 4-0 run, knocking down a 3 to take back the lead. That’s when the next senior stepped up. Kevin Young got fouled and made two free throws. He would make four more after that, everyone as important as the next.
Then young Mr. McLemore did his part, making a play with that sweet natural ability of his. He jumped in the passing lane and in a flash was soaring towards the rim, putting KU back ahead.
Young’s four free throws would put KU ahead by four. Jeff Withey was doing his closing on the defensive end. And then Travis Releford delivered the final blow with a 3-pointer.
A collection of closers. That’s a luxury few teams have. It’s why most feel the need to just find one guy and say you be the one to take the tough shot. We’ll watch.
The first 34 minutes on Sunday were a reminder that the Jayhawks will not always be brilliant, as they had been for the last month. They had put together five straight masterpieces, and on this day, they were coloring outside the lines. Too many risky passes. Too many missed chippies. Too many lapses of concentration on the defensive end.
It was a throwback to last season’s team, which was an imperfect product. But when it came time to win, Thomas Robinson blocked shots at the buzzer, Withey became a wall, Johnson found Taylor backdoor and Johnson made deep jumpers.
There were so many moments that defined that team, but the one that I think will have a lasting effect this year is the deep 3-pointer that Johnson made against Purdue. It was a shot that had it clanked off the rim, we might remember 2011-12 as a failure rather than a success. Second-round exits in Lawrence are met with regret. Yet Johnson calmly stepped into the shot that saved the season, and afterward, Taylor let it be known that Johnson had a big smile on his face when he released it.
So if you’re waiting for McLemore to become the closer, forget it. Johnson is the one. He was the one that made sure he wrestled back the momentum against Temple, and he’ll be the one who Self will likely draw the play for when KU needs a last-second bucket this year.
It’s nice to know now that if it’s not there, he’s got some friends to back him up.