That Kansas is on a 16-game winning streak, is a near-lock to win its conference and is projected to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is no real surprise. The Jayhawks have won at least a share of the Big 12 title for eight consecutive years and have been no worse than a No. 4 seed in the Big Dance any of those years.
But what is surprising about Kansas' success this season is who has been most responsible for it.
At the start of the season, redshirt freshman Ben McLemore was a footnote to a team built around senior center Jeff Withey -- but it's the newbie who has received all the attention lately for the Jayhawks, who are tied at No. 3 with Syracuse in this week's Associated Press poll.
It hasn't necessarily been an expected path for McLemore, a shooting guard who leads the team with 16.1 points on only 10.7 shots a game, was named a midseason All-America last week by the Sporting News and is one of three freshmen remaining on the Wooden Award watch list.
The 6-5, 195-pound McLemore wasn't even viewed as a serious national recruit until his senior season of high school, when he was seen more as an undersized power forward. Even when Kansas signed the St. Louis native, McLemore wasn't expected to be an elite star. He sat out a season to get his grades up, and there was talk among the team about just what McLemore could do.
Still, when McLemore -- who almost surely will be a top-10 pick if he enters the NBA draft in June -- started generating highlight reel after highlight reel with his execution in transition and gorgeous jump shot, almost everyone seemed at least a little surprised.
The preseason talk regarding freshmen was dominated by names such as UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Kentucky's Nerlens Noel, but McLemore has outplayed them both, as well as most everyone else.
"Ben McLemore, he's not a McDonald's All-American; he was a guy that was top-30, top-40 guy in the country, and he's arguably as talented as any freshman there is," Kansas coach Bill Self said.
ESPN's John Gasoway recently revised his list of top 25 freshmen in college basketball to include McLemore at the very top. He was No. 8 in Gasoway's December ranking.
Now, two games after turning his ankle in the final minutes of a 61-44 victory over Baylor last week, McLemore is looking as strong as ever, seemingly prepared to lead the Jayhawks down the stretch.
He is shooting 51 percent from the floor, 44.6 percent from three-point range and 87.1 percent on free throws. He had 16 points and six rebounds in a victory at Texas five days after the ankle scare, though he had attempted only three shots at halftime -- a fact that Self mentioned to McLemore during the break.
"I just have to do a better job of getting myself open," McLemore said afterward.
Expectations change, and for McLemore they've grown substantially.
RAYNO'S SHORT TAKES
• Last week, the NCAA convened its annual meeting and addressed many pressing items -- including the obliging concern over whether players should, in fact, be able to spread cream cheese on their bagels. If you'll remember, in 2008, the Atlantic Coast Conference offered up a proposal seeking to permit schools to make available "fruits, nuts and bagels to student-athletes at any time." (Schools are otherwise only allowed to serve athletes three meals a day.) The problem? Spreads were prohibited, in order to prevent snacks from becoming a meal (bagel pizzas, anyone?) and sadly, that specification spread to cream cheese, butter or anything else with which one might like to top their bagel.
But as John Infante of the Bylaw Blog explains, the Legislative Council decided at this year's convention to delete that interpretation, allowing for bagels everywhere to be loxed, cheesed, and peanut buttered, until, he says, "some football staff decides to set out lunch meats, pizza bagels or grill steaks and serve them to players on half a bagel."
• With Rutgers and Maryland joining the Big Ten in 2014, there's been plenty of early discussion about scheduling and whether divisions should be created. On Monday's Big Ten conference call, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan said he liked the idea of playing all the league teams. "The way the nonconference schedule is, If we had a couple more conference games, I think it would be better for us," he said.
• If you need further proof that the NCAA's enforcement staff is struggling to, you know, enforce in a logical, ethical and expedient way, look no further than the situation going on at Miami, where the NCAA is now "investigating its own investigation," as ESPN's Dana O'Neil puts it. That's a loud statement about the enforcement staff.
BIG TEN POWER POLL
1. Michigan: The Wolverines aren't always controlling games out of the gate, but Michigan has become one of the best teams in basketball at mid-game adjustments.
2. Indiana: The Hoosiers will stay here until they prove unworthy, but I still maintain Indiana's schedule has been light so far.
3. Michigan State: I'm excited for the Hoosiers game to come, now that the Spartans are looking a lot better than we gave them credit for early.
4. Ohio State: This is the only team in the Big Ten whose only losses have come against ranked teams.
5. Wisconsin: That's two losses in a row for the Badgers, but victories over two ranked teams keep them relevant.
6. Minnesota: The Gophers are on the edge of a breakdown. Turn things around quickly and the Northwestern loss is forgotten.
7. Illinois: A win over Nebraska doesn't prove much, but it likely helped the Illini get out of their slump.
8. Purdue: The Boilermakers made it interesting against Michigan in the first half before the Wolverines finished them off.
9. Northwestern: It's the inconsistency that's killing the Wildcats.
10. Iowa: At some point, this team's record is going to turn around. It might not be this season, but this squad has real potential.
11. Nebraska: Freshman Shavon Shields is keeping the Cornhuskers out of the basement.
12. Penn State: Winless in seven games in the conference is a tough place to be.