Kansas Point Guard Conner Frankamp Coming Up Big After Unexpected Opportunity

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Kansas Point Guard Conner Frankamp Coming Up Big After Unexpected Opportunity
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ST. LOUIS — Thursday afternoon, just 24 hours before Kansas opened play against Eastern Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, Bill Self approached his assistant coaches following practice and revealed a change in postseason strategy.

"I'm going with Frankamp," Self said of his backup point guard. "Conner’s going to play. A lot."

Self’s underlings knew their boss didn’t plan to start Frankamp, a seldom-used freshman, ahead of veteran Naadir Tharpe. But in a one-and-done format with the season on the line, the hook for a struggling Tharpe would come quickly.

"He told me to be ready," Frankamp said.

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Thankfully Frankamp was, because without him, the Jayhawks' quest for an NCAA title may have ended after just one game.

Frankamp scored 10 points as Kansas rallied to defeat No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky at the Scottrade Center. But it was the levelheadedness and composure Frankamp exhibited that helped the Jayhawks the most.

Especially in the second half.

Kansas and Eastern Kentucky were tied 32-32 at intermission mainly because the Jayhawks committed 13 turnovers in the opening stanza. Four of them came from Tharpe, who was also having difficulty containing the Colonels' guards.

Instead of going with his normal backup, Frank Mason, Self opted to use Frankamp as the primary ball-handler in the second half. The result was just one turnover for Kansas as the Jayhawks regained their poise and survived a scare from EKU.

"I knew he’d be our first point guard off the bench," Self said. "I think it’s safe to say that he’ll be a big part of our rotation from this point forward."

Major changes to a team's rotation are rare this late in the season—especially for a team that's experienced as much success as the Big 12 regular-season champion Jayhawks. But the main question that has hovered over Kansas' program all season has been the point guard position.

A first-year starter, Tharpe has shown flashes of brilliance. He had four games of 19 points or better in conference play. But he's also had 11 games this season when he had three or more turnovers. 

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Tharp is also is a major liability on defense, where he often has trouble fighting through screens and stopping dribble penetration. The problem has been magnified in recent weeks, when Kansas allowed 94 and 92 points to West Virginia and Iowa State, respectively.

"I was overthinking a lot of plays instead of just going out there and letting the game come to me," Tharpe said. "I'm just going to let it go. All I really care about is us winning and advancing. If we’d have lost today and I'd have played bad, it’d be a different story."

Self benched Tharpe in favor of Mason in early December when Tharpe was struggling. But that appeared to be more of a motivational tactic, as Tharpe returned to the starting lineup two games later.

This late in the season, it's highly doubtful that Self is playing games. Whether he starts or not, Frankamp now appears to be a fixture in the Jayhawks rotation. He entered Friday's game averaging 7.1 minutes and 1.8 points.

"Just because he hasn't been getting the majority of the minutes throughout the season, let's not forget that he's a really good player," Kansas forward Tarik Black said of Frankamp. "You can see him shine on any given night.

"He got out on the floor today and got comfortable in the flow of the game. After that, talent takes over. His talent took over. You got to see what he’s really capable of today."

That Frankamp is experiencing success should hardly come as a surprise. A Wichita, Kan., native, he ended his career as the all-time leading scorer in his city's history and is regarded as one of the top three-point marksmen in the country.

Frankamp didn't swish any shots from beyond the arc Friday, but he clearly brought a sense of calm to both ends of the court.

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"(Making) a few shots early helped me," Frankamp said. "But I just tried to get in there and feed the ball to whoever was open and play sound on the offensive and defensive end."

Most times that turned out to be Andrew Wiggins (19 points) and Jamari Traylor, who finished with a career-high 17 points and 14 boards off the bench. All but one of Traylor's points came in the second half.

It was a shining moment for Traylor, a small forward who was living in the backseat of a car about five years ago after his mother kicked him out of the house for disciplinary reasons. Traylor, whose father is incarcerated, eventually found basketball, turned his life around and is now a inspiration to his teammates.

Oftentimes Self uses Traylor's story to motivate the team.

"He definitely lets everybody know that he’s proud of me," Traylor said. "And he let me know after the game."

Still, as much as he was doting over Traylor, Self's biggest praise was reserved for Frankamp. And rightfully so. Enhanced play at the point guard position could be the difference between the Elite Eight and the Final Four.

Heck, on Friday, it kept Kansas from being eliminated in the round of 64.

"I'm not sure we win the game without him," Self said. "He’s a tough kid and he’s hung in there. He deserves an opportunity."

 

Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.

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