For a while Friday, Conner Frankamp was the most important player on the floor for Kansas.
KU was piling up turnovers, but Frankamp stabilized the situation off the bench. In time, everyone followed his lead in an 80-69 NCAA Tournament-opening victory over Eastern Kentucky that KU trailed with a little more than 8 minutes to play.
“I am not sure we win the game without him,” KU coach Bill Self said of Frankamp.
KU had 13 turnovers in the first half as starting point guard Naadir Tharpe, primarily, labored in a game where the pace escalated early.
“I just felt like I was overthinking a couple plays and stuff like that,” Tharpe said. “I felt like it was more unforced turnovers. Just bad plays that I made at the beginning, instead of not looking to shoot the ball and thinking I should pass it to my teammates.”
So in came Frankamp, who entered the game shooting 30 percent. And 28.2 percent from the three-point line, where he specialized as one of the finest shooters in Kansas high school history at Wichita North.
But despite missing both three-point attempts Friday, he hit double-digit scoring for the first time with 10 points.
Frankamp was the first sub off the bench Friday. His job was to take care of the basketball, and he had no turnovers and four assists in a season-high 25 minutes, 10 more than in any other game.
Tharpe had four points, four turnovers and three assists in 21 minutes.
“I told Conner before the game that I’m going to go with him and I told our staff (Thursday) that we were going to go with him,” Self said. “And I really haven’t given him much of a chance to play. But he’s gotten better throughout the whole year and, you know, he deserves an opportunity.”
Frankamp played two minutes in KU’s opening game of the Big 12 tournament against Oklahoma State and didn’t get off the bench in the semifinals against Iowa State. In the Jayhawks’ final regular-season game at West Virginia, a 92-86 loss, he played 15 minutes but missed all six of his shots and was zero for four from three-point range.
On Friday, he jumped off the bench and made his first three shots from the floor.
“Getting a few shots helps me,” Frankamp said. “But I just try to get in there and feed the ball to whoever is open as best as I can and play sound on the offensive and defensive end. And I tried not to make any turnovers when I was out there.”
The only time Frankamp looked tentative was when he and Tharpe worked against a 1-3-1 halfcourt defense late in the game. Self wasn’t happy that KU played passively against the trapping zone defense instead of attacking it.
Otherwise, he had both thumbs way up for Frankamp’s stabilizing play.
“When he was in the game, the majority of the time we only had one (ball) handler,” Self said. “It was him. So there is a lot of pressure on Conner to be a calming influence for us and certainly he was. Certainly, he needs to play well moving forward, but today he ran our team. He wasn’t a guy that we just counted on to make shots. He was a player today. Without question.”The Wichita Eagle’s Jeffrey Lutz contributed to this report.