NCAA Tournament 2014: 5 Things We Learned from Kansas' Win over Eastern Kentucky
The Joel Embiid-less No. 2 seed Kansas Jayhawks opened up their quest for a national championship on Friday afternoon, knocking off the No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky Colonels 80-69 in South Region action at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
The Jayhawks (25-9) trailed by as many as nine points after a sluggish start in the first half, but they whittled the Eastern Kentucky lead down, entering halftime tied at 32 points apiece.
In the second half, Kansas pulled away, keyed by the strong play of Andrew Wiggins, Jamari Traylor and Perry Ellis, for a double-digit victory over the very pesky champions of the Ohio Valley Conference.
With the win, Kansas advances to face No. 10 seed Stanford—who did the Jayhawks a big favor by downing No. 7 seed New Mexico—on Sunday for a berth in the Sweet 16.
Heading into that matchup, these are the five things we learned about the Jayhawks in their win over Eastern Kentucky.
Perry Ellis Can Ball
Everyone knew that someone—possibly more like some ones—would need to step up for the Jayhawks to make a big run in the absence of Embiid. It's impossible to replace his impact, particularly on the defensive end, but you can only play with the guys who are on the court.
When, and if, he gets back, things will change. Until then, you have to fight the war with the army you've got, and other players have to make plays.
Perry Ellis, the Jayhawks' 6'8" sophomore forward making his second tournament appearance with the team, certainly helped on that front against Eastern Kentucky.
He was one of two Jayhawks to light up the board with a double-double, scoring 14 points and snatching 13 boards.
Those numbers bode very well for both Ellis and his Kansas teammates going forward.
In Jayhawks wins this season, Ellis averaged over 14 points a game (which he met today), but in losses, he was only good for about 10 points per game. Whenever you take a player out of the lineup and lose his production, it's crucial for the rest of the lineup to stay consistent or pick up the slack.
Eliis certainly did that on Friday.
If he can continue to put up big numbers like he did against the Colonels, he could be a huge factor as the competition level rises.
Stanford is up next, and you can bet they'll be even more dangerous than Eastern Kentucky.
The Jayhawks Are Extremely Vulnerable from Three
Eastern Kentucky was able to hang around in this game for two related reasons.
The Colonels are extremely proficient from three-point range, and the Jayhawks are absolutely awful at defending shots from behind the arc.
Glenn Cosey, the senior guard who was fifth in the nation in successful three-point attempts heading into the tournament, had nine points, all from behind the arc, before five minutes had elapsed in the game.
Those long-range triples keyed an early run for Eastern Kentucky and had them leading the Jayhawks by nine points with less than seven minutes to play in the first half.
The Jayhawks eventually settled down on offense and took command, pulling away late for a somewhat closer than expected victory, but the numbers don't lie.
Kansas has struggled to defend the triple all season, and Friday afternoon was no different.
Cosey only finished with 17 points, but Eastern Kentucky did shoot 12-of-31 from three, good for 39 percent.
Even with a victory, those numbers are extremely high, and the Jayhawks will remain vulnerable to any team that can make them pay from downtown.
Jamari Traylor Can Fill Some Big Shoes
Where have you been, Jamari Traylor?
Embiid certainly left some big shoes to fill—literally and figuratively—and Traylor did a monster job of filling them, at least for this one game.
Now, in fairness, Eastern Kentucky is one of the absolute worst rebounding and interior defense teams in the entire nation, but that said, did anyone expect Traylor to go off to the tune of 17 points and 14 rebounds?
If you said yes, the odds are you're lying.
Traylor is a big body, but he only averaged 4.5 points and 3.8 boards per game during the regular season. So for him to drop those types of numbers come tournament time is a little shocking.
Again, the competition level matters, but in the NCAA tournament, there isn't a single team not capable of ending your season. They all got there for a reason.
Eastern Kentucky wasn't able to end Kansas' season on Friday afternoon, and Traylor was a big part of the reason why. If he can play like that until Embiid returns, that's a huge boon for the Jayhawks and their national championship hopes.
Andrew Wiggins Isn't Rattled by the Tournament Stage
There was a lot of pressure on Wiggins—the Jayhawks stud freshman who is a guaranteed lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft—to show that he could perform on the biggest of the big stages in college basketball. All eyes were on him Friday, wondering what he'd do in his NCAA tournament debut.
And that's slightly unfair to him.
The 19-year-old Canadian import has been playing big games for Kansas all season. The Big 12 was one of the best conferences in the nation this year—it sent seven teams to the dance—and measuring yourself against the Iowa States, Baylors and Kansas States of the world on a nightly basis should prove you can play.
Wiggins led all Jayhawks in scoring with 19 points against Eastern Kentucky. He shot over 50 percent from the field and connected on all five of his free-throw attempts.
Was it the 30-point, completely dominant effort that many were hoping for?
No. But it didn't need to be.
Wiggins was efficient, consistent and made the shots he needed to make to help lead his team to a victory.
In March, that's all you can really ask of a player, and Wiggins responded.
The Jayhawks Should Survive the First Weekend
Kansas didn't need Embiid to absolutely dominate the glass on Friday night, but then again, they were playing a team that ranked near the bottom of the known universe in snagging boards.
Eastern Kentucky wishes that was a joke, but unfortunately for them, it's not.
The Colonels were—ready for it?—350th in the nation in rebounding coming into this game, and that number won't get any better after being torn up 43-19 on the boards against the Jayhawks.
Two Kansas players—Traylor and Ellis—snagged double digits, and it's hard to imagine what impact Embiid could possibly have had on that score to make it any more lopsided.
The Jayhawks' next opponent, which they have to be thankful for, will be the No. 10 seed Stanford.
The Cardinal aren't a great rebounding team themselves—just 172nd in the nation with a 34.8 average per game—but compared to Eastern Kentucky, they're going to look like world-beaters.
The real good news here for the Jayhawks is that they won't need to go up against New Mexico. The Lobos are a team that can rebound the basketball, and they had serious potential to make Kansas pay for their lack of a dominant big man.
But, alas, New Mexico once again failed to get out of the second round, and that made Kansas' path just that much easier to traverse.
With Embiid out, per ESPN.com, until at least a potential Sweet 16 game, the Jayhawks still look good to survive past the opening weekend. And that's largely because they won't run into a team that has the type of players to really hurt them in the middle.