ST. LOUIS – For a while Friday, Conner Frankamp was the most important player on the floor for Kansas. For a long while, in fact.
It was Frankamp who steadied a ship sinking under the weight of first-half turnovers. It was Frankamp who made three shots inside the three-point line. It was Frankamp who had to be on the floor for the Jayhawks to click.
And it’s been a long time coming.
Frankamp isn’t one to bear his soul or to admit to the frustration and anxiety that has to have been a part of his frustrating and anxious freshman season at KU. He’s an eyes-straight-ahead guy who isn’t comfortable acknowledging his own struggles, mighty as they’ve been.
Frankamp looked like the confident, aggressive player he was for four years at North. And the Jayhawks needed him to beat a tough, three-point loving Eastern Kentucky 80-69 in a game Kansas trailed with a little more than eight minutes to play.
“I am not sure we win the game without him,” KU coach Bill Self said of Frankamp.
That’s a first.
Frankamp went into 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.
But it’s been a bump-filled freshman ride for Frankamp, who before hitting double digits for the first time with 10 points against Eastern Kentucky had not scored more than six in a game.
Frankamp was the first sub off the bench Friday. His job was to take care of the basketball, something his teammates weren’t doing. Kansas had 12 turnovers in the first half and some of those did happen with Frankamp on the floor. But he had no turnovers in a season-high 25 minutes, 10 more than any other game.
“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 has been utilized mostly as a sniper, a long-range bomber who stands behind the arc and waits for somebody to give him the basketball. But that’s not Frankamp. He’s a complete basketball player, able to dribble, pass and defend. Maybe Self and his assistants are starting to figure that out.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen from Conner is that he tries to get better,” Self said. “He’s a tough kid and he’s hung in there. He’s a calming influence and it’s probably not a coincidence that when he played – I bet in the time he was out there, our team have had only two or three turnovers. So I’m really proud of him. To stay ready when your number hasn’t been called a lot is not the easiest thing to do, but he certainly has.”
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 0 for 4 from the three-point line.
To see him jump off the bench so early against Eastern Kentucky was a surprise. He made his first shot, then his second, then his third.
“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 teammate Naadir 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.”