LAWRENCE — The taste of college basketball has come in sips for Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor, just enough to make them thirsty for more.
The high-profile recruits were deemed partial qualifiers by the NCAA last season, which left them to watch as Kansas made another remarkable run to the Final Four. They couldn’t practice until the second semester, and even then had to find their own way to see games played on the road.
They were finally able to suit up during a summer trip to Europe, and then got their first true taste of Allen Fieldhouse in a pair of exhibition games against Division II opponents.
On Friday night, the talented freshmen will finally get to absorb big-time college hoops.
The seventh-ranked Jayhawks — the eight-time defending Big 12 champions — open against Southeast Missouri in their only tuneup before next week’s showdown against No. 14 Michigan State.
McLemore and Traylor should have been eligible last season, as far as coach Bill Self is concerned. But some questions about their grades forced them to stay away from the program entirely the first semester. It wasn’t until December that they could practice with the team.
That is when McLemore, an athletic guard who draws comparisons to Brandon Rush, and Traylor, a slightly undersized version of Thomas Robinson, finally showed teammates what they had been missing.
McLemore has an uncanny ability to hover in the air, something he demonstrated on a couple of high-flying dunks during exhibition games. Traylor has the same kind of rebounding ability — though still unharnessed — that made Robinson a first-team All-American last season.
“The greatest lesson I learned last year is to just be humble, and you know, let things come to you and stuff like that,” McLemore said. “Last year I was getting a lot of talk from Elijah Johnson, and he was telling me stuff he’d been though, and stuff I will go through.”
Even Johnson, a senior, couldn’t prepare McLemore for sitting out a year, though.
It was bad enough to have to watch games on campus, no different than the thousands of students who pack the ends of Allen Fieldhouse for every home game. But it was games on the road that were truly challenging — the logistics of getting there presenting plenty of hurdles.
Sometimes they would hitch a ride with cheerleaders or band members, or perhaps some friends, and sometimes they would figure out a way to drive themselves to far-flung places like Lubbock, Texas.
“I mean, I couldn’t play, but I also enjoyed watching my teammates play,” McLemore said, “and all I could think about was next year and what we could do as a team again.”
Naturally, McLemore and Traylor have become fast friends.
That is what happens when you spend so much time in the car together.
“Maybe a little too much time in the car, because Ben McLemore has the worst gas,” Traylor said with a laugh. “Definitely too much time on the road with that.”
The duo even managed to find a way to New Orleans, where they watched the Jayhawks beat Ohio State in the national semifinals before falling to Kentucky in the title game.
“We definitely went to the Final Four. That was a great experience,” McLemore said, sounding only a little despondent. “Hopefully we as a team can go back there again.”
If they do, McLemore and Traylor will be a big reason why.
The 6-foot-5 guard from St. Louis led the Jayhawks with 14 points and eight rebounds per game in their two exhibition games, showing perhaps the best instincts on the team. Traylor averaged 5.5 points and three rebounds, but has only played high-level, organized basketball for a couple years.
That makes the comparisons to Robinson, at least for now, a bit unfair.
“If Thomas got one mitt on the ball, he got possession of it. He was a fierce, competitive rebounder,” Self said. “The thing about Jamari, Jamari’s going to be good, but he’s never played. He’s going to be good, but it’s going to take time.”
Plenty of patience, too, something McLemore and Traylor have already demonstrated they have.