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Kansas survives, advances and gets crucial experience in ugly win over Eastern Kentucky

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-2nd Round-Kansas vs Eastern Kentucky
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Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins dunks the ball against Eastern Kentucky. (USA Today)

ST. LOUIS – In the NCAA tournament, all wins are good wins.

There is no need for artistic merit or dazzling victory margins. The only thing that matters is getting to play again.

So Kansas did what it needed to do Friday against Eastern Kentucky. It won the game, 80-69. Doesn't matter if the Jayhawks led for less than a minute of the first half, or that they didn't take the lead for good until the final 8:15.

Think of it this way: Duke, Ohio State and Oklahoma would love to have won ugly.

But there are some concerns for the Jayhawks to address between now and Sunday. Namely, how to get point guard Naadir Tharpe back on track.

Kansas coach Bill Self has said more than once that for his team to be great, it needs Tharpe to at least be very good. Against guard-oriented Eastern Kentucky, the junior from Worcester, Mass., wasn't even kind of good.

He was pretty poor.

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Tharpe had zero points, zero assists and four turnovers in the first half. The second half was better – four points, three assists, no turnovers – but still Tharpe's overall performance was enough of an issue that Self played him just 21 minutes – about nine less than his average.

Instead, he played freshman Conner Frankamp at point guard for long stretches – and got good results. Frankamp, who has had eight DNPs this season, played a career-high 25 minutes. He produced 10 points, four assists and no turnovers, helping clean up some very messy Kansas execution.

Self might not have planned a 25-minute game from Frankamp, but the strategy was to give him more time than he had been getting.

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Bill Self argues with a call during Kansas' win over Eastern Kentucky. (USA Today)

"I told Conner before the game, 'I am going to go with you,' " Self said. "And I told our staff yesterday that I was going to go with him. And I really haven't given him a chance to play. But he's gotten better throughout the year and, you know, he deserves an opportunity.

"He is a tough kid and has hung in there. I'm not sure if we can win the game without him. He is a calming influence and it is probably not a coincidence that when he played … our team may have had two, three turnovers total when he was actually in the game."

However Self rotates his point guards Sunday against Stanford, they will have to raise their level of play from this first game. The Cardinal throttled New Mexico's offense earlier in the day here by throttling its point guard. Kendall Williams was 1 for 9 from the field, scoring a season-low three points in his final college game.

Beating EKU without injured 7-footer Joel Embiid was made much easier by the backboard assault of Jamari Traylor (14 rebounds) and Perry EIllis (13). But the Colonels are small, hence the 43-19 mauling they took on the glass.

Stanford is not small. Which means Kansas must play a more complete game – it won't win on the basis of rebounding and pounding the ball inside alone. Which means the point guards must be solid. Or, more accurately, better than solid.

One of the things that happens when the points play well is this: freshman megatalent Andrew Wiggins gets the ball more. Wiggins had a team-high 19 points against Eastern Kentucky, many of them on dazzling dunks or lightning drives to the hoop. But in the first half, with EKU "playing on top of him," in Self's words, Wiggins didn't get the ball as much as Kansas wanted.

"He never got a chance to get touches because our ball handling was so bad," he said.

The ball handling was bad Friday, but not bad enough to get Kansas beaten by a No. 15 seed. Sunday against No. 10 Stanford, it will have to be better or there may not be another game this season.

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