He knew enough to cheer when Joel Embiid dunked the ball, and the 7-foot freshman did it plenty of times Tuesday night.
Embiid finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds in a breakout performance, helping the second-ranked Jayhawks to an 86-66 victory over Iona — one made all the sweeter by the center’s father, Thomas, in the stands.
“I don’t think I played good because he was there,” Embiid said. “I just felt more confident, and Coach always gives me his trust, so I just felt more confident.”
Embiid grew up playing volleyball in Yaounde, Cameroon, and didn’t start playing basketball until he attended a camp run by the Sacramento Kings’ Luc Mbah a Moute, who hails from the same town. Embiid was 16 years old, but his athleticism made him a natural.
He wound up at The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla., to pursue his basketball career, and quickly developed into a five-star talent. Kansas coach Bill Self was on him early, recruiting the blossoming Embiid to the school that produced Wilt Chamberlain.
“He’ll look good some days, he won’t look as good some days,” Self said, “but he’s smart. He gets it. He’s figuring things out all the time. I’m real pleased with his development.”
Embiid had plenty of support in this one.
Perry Ellis scored 21 points, Andrew Wiggins added 13 and Naadir Tharpe had 10 assists for Kansas (3-0), which overcame a sluggish start after a high-profile triumph over Duke last week.
The Gaels (1-2), using a maddening 2-2-1 zone and pouring in 3-pointers, managed to hang within single digits until midway through the second half. That’s when Kansas went on a 19-4 surge fueled by its freshmen to finally put the game away.
“Our kids came out and competed their hearts out and did their best all night,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said. “It gives us a lot of measuring sticks for the rest of the season.”
A.J. English scored 21 points for Iona, and David Laury added 13 points and nine rebounds before fouling out. Sean Armand added 14 points, hitting three 3-pointers to move within three of matching the school’s career record of 263.
While the Gaels shot the ball well, they had no answer inside for Ellis and Embiid.
The 6-foot-8 Ellis scored on a variety of nifty spin moves and soft floaters in the lane, while Embiid used his massive size advantage to go 7 for 7 from the field.
Much to the delight of his father.
“It was the first time we’ve met him in person,” Self said. “That’s the first basketball game he’s ever seen. He’ll be here ’til Saturday or Sunday, so it’ll be good to see Joel play again. But it has to be cool, you’ve come over here and your first experience is Allen Fieldhouse.”
After allowing the Blue Devils to shoot better than 50 percent last week in Chicago, Kansas again struggled on defense. The Gaels pumped in six 3-pointers in the first half and shot 45 percent from the field in closing to within 41-36 at the break.
In fact, the Jayhawks might have found themselves behind to the MAAC school if not for the play of Ellis, who was 6-of-8 from the field and scored 13 points in the opening half.
“I feel a lot more confident,” Ellis said, “just trusting myself now.”
The Gaels kept within striking distance with their perimeter shooting early in the second half, much to the chagrin of Self, who kept burning timeouts. But once the outside shots stopped dropping, the Jayhawks were able to start running — and use their superior athleticism.
Tharpe served as the conductor orchestrating the Kansas offense, delivering crisp passes to set up easy baskets. The sophomore guard threw a pretty alley-oop pass to Wiggins to start the second half, and then tossed up another to Embiid on the next possession.