Remember Jeff Withey checking into a game, making a mistake and checking back out? It happened often his first two seasons of college basketball. Heading into his junior year, he had played just 207 minutes, scored but 80 points and had season scoring averages of 1.3 and 2.3.
Now he holds the Kansas University and Big 12 records for blocked shots (294) was a first-team All-Big 12 selection and MVP of the conference tournament.
High-flying Elijah Johnson arrived from Las Vegas and scored eight points in his 17-minute debut against Hofstra, or two more points than he scored for the entire portion of the Big 12 schedule. Unable to keep opposing guards in front of him, he played all of 25 minutes, never more than six in any one Big 12 game.
Johnson’s sophomore season didn’t start well. He wasn’t allowed to suit up in the first two games for off-the-court reasons never made public. He worked his way into the rotation, but couldn’t beat out starters Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed and averaged 13.7 minutes and 3.4 points per game.
Johnson again did something to incur the wrath of his coach and was suspended, along with Tyshawn Taylor, for the two preseason exhibition games his junior season. It was only natural at that point to wonder whether he ever would get his act together. He did and hit more big shots than anybody during KU’s run to the 2012 NCAA Tournament title game.
He went through a prolonged slump this season. That made his 39-point game against Iowa State in Ames all the more gratifying for him.
Three seasons into his college career — the second spent as a red shirt — Travis Releford’s highest minutes-per-game season was 10.4, his highest scoring average 3.7.
Now he plays a team-high 33.4 minutes per game. He’s too valuable defensively to spend much time on the bench. He gives Kansas its best shot of slowing down the opposing team’s best player at all three perimeter positions. Releford also averages 11.5 points and ranked first in the Big 12 and 13th in the nation in effective-field-goal percentage, a stat that blends three-point and two-point percentages.
Some players don’t have to wait as long, have their patience tested and test that of their coach and fan base, as Withey, Johnson and Releford. Some players make huge strides within one season. Perry Ellis averaged 2.9 points in his first 13 games against Big 12 competition, 10.4 in his last eight. He dunked the ball twice in his first 32 games, four times in his last two.
Ben McLemore stands alone in having enough talent to star from Day 1 of his college career, and although his one semester practicing with the team helped, it’s more than that. His overwhelming talent compensated for his lack of experience, and the same can’t be said for anyone else on this roster.
The lesson to be learned from this team that became Bill Self’s fifth in the past seven years to earn a No. 1 seed is that it pays not to read too much into first impressions. The average student arrives at college a boy and grows into a man. Why should it be any different for a basketball player?
“I feel like — and you might hear this from coach’s mouth — it’s not the most talented team that we’ve had here at Kansas even in my four years,” Johnson said. “My freshman year with Sherron (Collins) and my sophomore year with the twins (Marcus and Markieff Morris), those are some good teams. I felt like we had targets on our back, and we didn’t respond like we should have. This is a more, I feel, humble team, a more … I really don’t know the word to explain … I don’t feel we’re those old teams. I feel like we know that we’re not the best talented.”
It’s not a conceited bunch that yaps too much the way Marcus Morris did in trash-talking Richmond players a day before destroying the Spiders. It didn’t work as well later in the weekend when Morris told VCU players right before tipoff that their nice run was over now. VCU won by an upset.
Not that conceit is necessarily a prescription for disaster. After all, it was Mario Chalmers who hit the biggest shot during Self’s 10 seasons at Kansas.
But Johnson is right in pointing out that this team doesn’t feel like the others, including last year’s, which had national Player of the Year runner-up Thomas Robinson and four-year starter Taylor.
“It amazes me,” Self said. “We’ve got four seniors starting on a team that is a No. 1 seed and none are 1,000-point scorers (for Kansas). If you’ve got four guys that are starting as many games you play in a season 40 games, that’s 160 games, you’ve only got to average six points a game to be a thousand-point scorer. We don’t have one. It tells you they didn’t play when they were young. They waited their time. That’s what I’m most proud of, the fact that you’ve got four kids all from different scenarios that waited their time and made the most of it, when opportunity knocks they beat the door down. It’s pretty cool to watch from inside.”
Kevin Young has scored 1,030 points during his college basketball career, but 648 came at Loyola Marymount. His path to big-time college basketball also included stops at a pair of junior colleges.
Athletes who must wait as long as the majority of KU’s players waited for a shot tend to not to take what they’re about to experience for granted. If they don’t reach their common goal, lack of effort or an abundance of conceit likely won’t be what made them fall short.