The Kansas Jayhawks overcame an early square to defeat the Eastern Kentucky Colonels during a closer-than-expected second-round bout.
With star center Joel Embiid sidelined due to a back injury, No. 2 Kansas managed to fend off the feisty No. 15 Eastern Kentucky, winning by a score of 80-69 behind 19 points from freshman sensation Andrew Wiggins.
The Jayhawks will now play No. 10 Stanford, who knocked off No. 7 New Mexico earlier on Friday, during the third round on Sunday.
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The victory did not come easy, as the Colonels' rapid ball movement and prolific shooting put another major upset in the cards after Mercer began Friday's action by slaying Duke. But Kansas gathered its composure in the second half, outscoring Eastern Kentucky by 11 points.
A 7-0 run during the waning minutes placed the game out reach, but that shouldn't offset a contest that remained close for roughly 48 minutes.
Eastern Kentucky stormed out of the gates, opening the game on a 10-4 run with two three-pointers from Glenn Cosey. Less than five minutes into the match, a flustered Kansas squad surrendered four turnovers.
Those turnover problems consisted, with the Jayhawks coughing the ball off 12 times during the first half. Yahoo's Pat Forde was critical of their inability to protect the basketball.
This was not just a momentary surge from the Colonels. With 8:43 left in the first half, tension mounted as Cosey's 14 points matched Kansas' team total.
Fully utilizing its side advantage, Kansas corralled 43 rebounds to Eastern Kentucky's 19. They needed it to overcome the wide discrepancy in three-pointers, as Eastern Kentucky converted a dozen long-distance shots while Kentucky was shut out from behind the arc.
Wiggins soared for a high lob he ferociously threw down to ignite Kansas with 6:05 left in the first half. The rim-rattling dunk initiated a 14-7 run to give the Jayhawks a 32-30 lead. They appeared poised to enter the half with a narrow edge before fouling Orlando Williams on a three-point attempt with 0.4 second left.
The senior hit two free throws to tie the game at 32 after 20 minutes of play. This led the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Dave Matter to tweet an alarming stat.
Starting the second half, Kansas dictated the tempo to a slower pace better suited for its imposing inside game. That changed when Eastern Kentucky rattled off a 7-0 run engineered by Tairus Johnson to regain the lead, but the burst quickly faded.
Kansas collected 48 points during the second half while solving its earlier turnover woes. Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, two of five players to finish with double-digit point tallies, each collected a double-double.
The victory relieved many interested bracket owners hoping to avoid a calamity. Kansas was a popular pick to win it all on ESPN, with 5.5 percent of its participants selecting the Jayhawks to earn the championship.
Despite Embiid's absence, Kansas was still labeled a strong favorite to advance past the second round. According to The Kansas City Star's Rustin Dodd, college basketball guru Ken Pomeroy predicted a double-digit victory for Bill Self's squad.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to have seen the underdogs came out loose and hungry to stun the world. Before the big day, Cosey discussed the advantages of dealing with lower expectations, per The Associated Press' Dave Skretta (via Yahoo Sports).
"Being the underdog is always fun," Cosey said, "especially if you can pull off an upset. And a lot of people seem to get with the underdog, so it should be fun."
While Kansas harnesses a youthful squad led by the freshman Wiggins, Eastern Kentucky has started five upperclassmen in every game this season. That experience lent them well on the grand stage in St. Louis, but not enough to pull off the upset at the Scottrade Center.
After avoiding an embarrassing defeat, Kansas will again have its hands full with another underdog. The Stanford Cardinal have notched victories over Oregon, Connecticut and UCLA this season while playing strong against Arizona during two tough defeats.
On Wednesday, Self told Dodd that Embiid will not play at all during the opening weekend barring a "miraculous act." If Self wants to see its freshman suit up for Kansas again, he'll need to lead his squad into the Sweet 16.