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Unlikely freshman helps rescue KU

3/21/2014

ST. LOUIS -- There he sat on Friday, a 7-foot specimen -- taller in shoes -- on the bench, dressed in that familiar blue warm-up.

The breakout star of this Kansas basketball season, freshman Joel Embiid didn’t play in Kansas’ tough test of an NCAA tournament opener, an 80-69 victory over 15th-seeded Eastern Kentucky.

His presence at the Scottrade Center, no doubt, torments some of the thousands who drove across the state of Missouri this week. Nursing an injured back, Embiid won’t play in St. Louis. He didn’t play at the Big 12 tournament as Kansas exited in the semifinals.

He might return next week if the Jayhawks beat Stanford on Sunday and advance to the Sweet 16.

And all of it mattered very little on Friday.

Forget those longing looks to the bench. Kansas trailed 23-14 less than 12 minutes into the game, and it had almost nothing to do with the absence of the imported big man from Cameroon.

The Jayhawks committed 13 turnovers in the first half against EKU’s frenetic-paced defense. Kansas owned the inside, even without Embiid. It did not make a 3-point field goal all day, attempting only seven.

But if it can’t take care of the basketball, even Embiid can’t help.

Which is why the second half on Friday ought to provide hope.

The Jayhawks entered the tournament with a national ranking of No. 299 in turnover margin. Against the Colonels, they hit their per-game figure in the first half -- then lost the handle just once in the final 20 minutes.

Credit Conner Frankamp. He’s another freshman. He’s the antithesis of Embiid, 12 inches shorter and from Wichita, Kan. On Friday, Frankamp understood exactly what the Jayhawks needed.

“There’s a lot of pressure on Conner to be a calming influence on us,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I thought he handled everything beautifully. He ran our team.”

Frankamp started tournament play right there alongside Embiid, figuring he might sit all day. Before Friday, he played 1.8 minutes per game.

Against the Ohio Valley Conference champion, Frankamp stayed on the court for 25, a season high.

“I just try to get in there and feed the ball to whoever is open as best I can and play sound on the offensive end and defensive end,” Frankamp said.

He said he focused on taking care of the basketball. He committed no turnovers, scored 10 points and dished four assists.

Mission accomplished. Little man to the rescue.

Self said the Jayhawks felt fortunate to escape Eastern Kentucky, which used a 10-0 run in the second half to regain a 48-45 lead after Kansas began to assert control.

“The key was to pound the ball inside,” KU forward Perry Ellis said, “and we did that.”

Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor took over. Embiid himself couldn’t have done better work in the paint.

Kansas didn’t need him on Friday. It needed Frankamp, who watched Duke fall to No. 14 seed Mercer before KU took the floor in St. Louis. The game in Raleigh, N.C., reminded the Jayhawks that anything can happen in the tournament.

Still, Self said, he didn’t know if his players “totally respected” Eastern Kentucky’s ability to create havoc.

Senior guard Glenn Cosey led the charge early for the Colonels, hitting four of his first five 3-pointers. He was everywhere on the offensive and defensive ends.

Eastern Kentucky shook Kansas with a tricky zone defense for a few possessions before halftime.

“I didn’t think we attacked it well at all,” Self said.

Once Frankamp entered to restore some order, though, another Kansas freshman, leading scorer Andrew Wiggins -- the rookie who began this season with all the hype -- sent a message with a pair of sky-high dunks en route to 19 points.

The first dunk, an alley-oop in transition from Frank Mason, forced an immediate timeout from EKU coach Jeff Neubauer. The Colonels recovered.

With each slam from Wiggins and Black, who delivered an array of his own after halftime, the Jayhawks looked closer to hammering their way to victory.

But EKU never cracked. The key to victory existed elsewhere on the court.

“We knew that Kansas was a great rebounding team,” Neubauer said, “and we absolutely had to steal it before they could rebound it. In the first half we did that really well.”

Not so well after halftime.

Credit the secret weapon on the bench, the 6-foot freshman who saved the day.

Thanks to Frankamp, that other freshman may soon shed his warm-up and receive an opportunity to return.