With the discerning eye of a jeweler, Larry Brown made the same observation every time he watched Kansas practice last season: Of all the talented Jayhawks who led them to the national title game, the brightest gem was a freshman academically ineligible to play in games.

"Bill," Brown would ask Kansas coach Bill Self, "you realize what you have here?"

One year later, Self knows exactly what he has in Ben McLemore: the most talented young player, by far, that he says he has ever coached. Though the foundation of Kansas' team is four senior starters, the difference maker is a 6-5 redshirt freshman, McLemore.

No Kansas freshman has averaged more points than the St. Louis native who figures to be one of the most prominent faces of the NCAA tournament. And no player in the tournament will have as good a chance as McLemore to follow in the footsteps of former Kentucky All-American Anthony Davis, who won a national championship last season and was selected first in the NBA draft.

But McLemore, 20, is not a natural fit for the large stage. He is a reluctant star who continues to hear that he defers far too much and lacks killer instinct. Even his role model, 26-year-old brother Keith Scott, calls him from a maximum-security prison in Mineral Point, Mo., to implore McLemore to be more assertive, to carry his team like everyone knows he can.

Unlike many of today's top players, McLemore was not showered with adulation or anointed a future star from the time he was an adolescent. Rather than obsess over national player rankings, phenom camp invitations or third-party handlers, McLemore focused on more fundamental concerns amid one of the poorest urban communities in Missouri: finding food.

Says McLemore: "It's hard to play basketball when nothing is inside of you."

The smallest home on Wellston Avenue is where McLemore, the second youngest of Sonya Reid's six children, calls home. On a mid-February afternoon, children step off a yellow school bus in front of an abandoned building. So many stray dogs roam the neighborhood that a teenager asks a visitor if he is from the animal control department.

McLemore says on any given night as many as 10 relatives, including siblings, nieces and a nephew, would sleep inside his home, which is smaller than 600 square feet. The home's only bed had three legs, with the other corner supported by a pile of books.

His home, McLemore says, was filled with love but little else. He remembers his mother working nights for a cleaning staff near downtown Busch Stadium. He remembers older brother Keith cycling through odd jobs fixing bikes, trying to make money to support the family.

But it wasn't enough. He won't forget the feeling of waking up knowing there was no food or beverage in the refrigerator, with none on the way those days. He says at times he would go one or two days with no food.