ST. LOUIS — The best thing about Kansas’ guards in the second half Friday against Eastern Kentucky was that they were barely noticeable, and that’s hardly a backhanded compliment.
While Eastern Kentucky was intent on hanging with the Jayhawks with a barrage of three-pointers, KU’s guards never felt the need to match. KU didn’t even make a three-pointer, and that meant practically everything the Jayhawks were trying to do was working.
So if it seemed like KU’s guards were more inconspicuous than normal, just know that it was basically part of the plan, which the Jayhawks eventually perfected in an 80-69 win.
“We were just trying to get to our bigs as much as we can, because they were playing great,” KU guard Naadir Tharpe said. “The inside presence was there, so we were trying to get it to them as much as we can.”
The plan came with a how-to guide that included two simple steps – first, KU’s guards needed to figure out EKU’s pressure and speed to slow the game down enough to make the Jayhawks’ interior play the focal point.
KU had 13 turnovers in the first half as 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.”
Conner Frankamp stabilized the situation off the bench in the first half, and in time everyone followed his lead. KU had one turnover in the second half – by Andrew Wiggins, not a primary ballhandler.
Corey Walden, EKU’s most disruptive defender, missed time in the first half with three fouls and even more in the second after his fourth, and the Jayhawks used his absence to more persistently attack.
KU’s big men finished what its guards started by getting beyond the first line of defense, drawing EKU’s post players away from the blocks and opening up the middle for the Jayhawks’ bigs.
“We slowed the ball down,” Tharpe said. “Conner played well when he got in the game, being poised and running the offense. We made easier plays for each other rather than going in and trying to make something out of nothing.”
The next step was to leave the three-pointers to the Colonels. The Jayhawks were never going to match EKU’s perimeter prowess in quality or quantity, and it proved best they not even try.
EKU made12 of 31 threes and KU was 0 for 7.
“We try to tell our guys they have range, they’re going to shoot shots that you don’t shoot and they’re going to make some,” KU coach Bill Self said. “And I don’t know if we totally respected that.”
Glenn Cosey made 4 of 5 threes in the first half. In the second, KU defended him more intently and held him scoreless. That enabled more EKU players to become involved from the perimeter but at the cost of essentially losing their leading scorer, a trade-off that favored the Jayhawks.
Tharpe, Frankamp and Frank Mason were efficient offensively, making 6 of 10 shots collectively, but their tasks of chasing EKU’s athletic guards around the three-point line and bringing calm to the halfcourt offense were most vital.
“We take a good amount of threes every game, but we knew we couldn’t get in a three-point shooting contest with them,” said KU guard Wayne Selden, who tied for the team lead with four assists. “They were putting them up and we had to get the ball inside.”