CINCINNATI - Who knew Kenny Frease was actually 7 feet tall? Well, besides Lehigh, Notre Dame and the rest of the teams that have gotten in his way the past nine games.
Xavier University senior center Kenny Frease has seized the moment of his final hours in a college basketball uniform by becoming everything XU fans thought he could be and then some. And it only took three years and 26 games of frustration to get there.
He's had dominance in the post, prowess on the glass, intelligence in his ball movement and most importantly some of the most rock solid defense he's ever put forth.
In his last nine games, Frease has averaged 14 points per game, 8 rebounds per game and is shooting a cool 56 percent from the field, not to mention 67 percent from the free throw line.
All this compared to his season averages of 9 points per game and 6 rebounds on 50 percent shooting from the field and 56 percent from the free throw line, and career averages of 8 points per game and 5 rebounds on 51 percent shooting from the field and 57 percent from the free throw line.
Kenny has always been an efficient shooter, but never with this amount of shots (88 in the last nine games). And if you remove the St. Bonaventure game in the A-10 Championship from that line, during which no Musketeer deserves applause, it gets even better.
The last nine games, he actually looks like he wants the ball. Prior to these moments in his career, Kenny has been more than happy to dish the ball off to his very talented supporting back court after making a lazy top of the key on-ball screen. No longer. Kenny sets hard picks, and throws that hand up as soon as the screen breaks to get the lead pass up toward the basket. He's willing to take a bullet pass between two defenders from the outside, turn and go strong to the basket with the surest of hands.
He actually keeps the ball above his waste on the offensive glass, with such soft touch as to be able to sink a tear drop no matter the bumping and grinding from the defense down low, and such strength to slam home a dunk through outstretched arms when it's quicker to do so.
On defense, he's been a tower. Frease has always played like he was 6'9 with the way he would stay hunched over and how he barely got off the ground. Now, Frease is using his body, having learned that he doesn't have to jump to affect shots, he just has to be in good position. And he has consistently been in great position every time down the court in XU's last nine games.
Against Lehigh, there was only one play he was out of position on offense or defense, and it was because C.J. McCollum forced him to come out and contest a shot, which bounced right back off the rim in his direction only to be met by a charging McCollum that had taken the position Frease had been in before his leaping shot contest.
Kenny has shown glimmers of these kind of performances over the course of his very closely-watched and very heavily-scrutinized career, but never in the multitude of these past nine games.
And this string couldn't come at a better time as a team that has been considered underachieving overall has proven their worth by establishing themselves as one of the best 16 teams in the country with late season success.
Negative screams of "KENNY!!!" resound much less often among Xavier game-watching circles thanks to his stellar play the past nine games. Fans don't hold their breath when he gets a pass 10 feet from the basket.
To top it all off, his minutes are up (an average of 28 per game in the last nine compared to 24 the rest of the season). Kenny hasn't had more than three fouls in a game since Xavier's OT win over Dayton when he fouled out, and his effort on the court isn't every third or fourth play, it's every time the ball hits the floor.
But he will be tested. In his most recent career-topping numbers game in the Third Round of the NCAA Tournament, he had a 3-inch and 55-pound advantage on his matchup, Lehigh's Gabe Knutson. Xavier's 7:15 p.m. Friday evening opponent in the Sweet Sixteen, Baylor, has Perry Jones III, a 6'11, 235-pound force in the post, who averages almost 8 boards a game and over 14 points. Kenny still has the weight, but Jones' athleticism will force Frease to make sure he's in the best position every second he's on the court.
And now, for a first person perspective: I gave Kenny Frease the benefit of the doubt that he could reach the potential of an All A-10 forward up until 9 games into this season. When XU played Oral Roberts in the game following the Shootout Sparring Match, Kenny was without Lyons, Holloway or Wells due to suspensions, and had the chance to lead his team to victory with his senior leadership and ability in the low post. Instead, Frease turned the ball over four times, shot 2 of 9 from the field, and let a depleted Xavier team sink even lower. This was the low point of a season during which up to that point he had averaged 3.5 turnovers per game and was doing practically nothing to scare offensive drives into the post.
It's only fitting that nine games ago, Kenny finally reached that fifth gear that propelled this Xavier team into a complete one.
Go get 'em Kenny. Erase those highlighters from this tournament.