University of Kansas

Kansas role players step up

LAWRENCE — It will be a long time before Kansas plays another game like this one, wrapped in a rare blend of circumstances that made a contest designed to be meaningless feel as meaningful as any.

Division II Pittsburg State was in for an exhibition game, which would not count for anything other than pride. Then again, No. 13 KU would be without All-America candidate Thomas Robinson (out with a hyperextended right knee) and starters Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson (suspended for the two exhibition games for offseason violations of team rules), which meant that it was conceivable KU coach Bill Self and his loving fans could together suffer the horror of a loss to Pittsburg State.

On Tuesday afternoon, Self got his make-shift group together for a walkthrough that was more like a necessary practice to develop some chemistry between parts that might not fit just right. There were five career starts at KU among the five young men who would start for the Jayhawks, so, yes, the old barn felt a bit stuffy when Self sat down on the bench before tipoff.

"The building was hot," Self said. "I was kind of nervous before the game, to be honest. I knew it wouldn't look good."

Self's premonition was right, but the Jayhawks did what they were supposed to do and blew out the Gorillas 84-55 after leading just 32-27 at the half. Fans will have to wait until the opener on Nov. 11 against Towson to see what KU is really going to look like this season. What they got on Tuesday was a preview of the Jayhawks' supporting cast. Unless Robinson is cleared to play next Tuesday against Fort Hays State, it will be more of the same.

And maybe that's for the better. Robinson, Taylor and Johnson (to a lesser extent) don't need to prove themselves against D-II opponents. This was a night for a starting lineup that included Conner Teahan (a fifth-year senior and former walk-on), Travis Releford (a fourth-year junior), Jeff Withey (a fourth-year junior), Justin Wesley (a redshirt sophomore and former walk-on) and Naadir Tharpe (a freshman without a five-star rating or ego) to gain the confidence to eventually buoy KU's stars. The question was, could they take advantage?

Teahan, a sharpshooter from Leawood, immediately answered yes. He made three-pointers on KU's first three possessions, giving the Jayhawks a 9-0 lead and immediately putting his coach, teammates and fans at ease. Well, and Teahan himself.

"I haven't played very much in the beginning of games, obviously," Teahan said. "It was good for me to get out there and get in a rhythm."

Teahan finished with 21 points, made 5 of 8 from three and had seven rebounds, and Self didn't seem remotely surprised, calling Teahan the team's sixth man.

Teahan may not have made those threes if it weren't for Tharpe, who assisted on each of them and finished with 12 points and eight assists. Tharpe had plenty of freshman moments, though, and had nine turnovers. Self had no choice but to let him play through it.

"I told him he was gonna play 35 minutes and he could turn it over every possession and I wasn't going to take him out," Self said, "and he made me look like I'm a man of my word."

It was hard to know what to make of Withey, who punished the smaller Gorillas with a second-half explosion for a triple-double 18 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocks. In the first half, Withey wasn't much of a factor and struggled to finish around the rim.

All in all, it ended just like most other nights at Allen. But it sure didn't start that way.

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