In a literal sense, Marge Frease has been looking up to her son since he was in middle school.
As Kenny Freases imperfect but impactful college career at Xavier winds down, she remains proud of the player and person he's become.
Kenny Frease seems to be in a good place, too, as the stretch run begins in one of the strangest seasons a major college basketball program has ever encountered. Xavier is facing not only life on the NCAA Tournament bubble but the same uncertainty its faced for much of 2012 in regards to which team is going to show up on a daily and weekly basis.
A huge game with rival Dayton awaits Friday night in the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals. The Musketeers tournament hopes and Xaviers streak of six straight NCAA Tournament appearances - might be hanging in the balance. It's March, which means the most memorable games start now. For seniors like Frease, any game could be the last.
Marge Frease will be on the road for Atlantic City by Thursday, and she admits she'll be nervous all the way. Her 7-foot son, though, is just anxious.
No, I'm not really much for nerves, Frease said. Ive never been someone who gets nervous, so why start now? Its exciting to be playing in a situation where every game matters. Weve been to the NCAA Tournament, tasted the Sweet 16. We want to get back. Chasing that, thats the fun part.
The fun parts for Xavier have been few and far between over the last 10 weeks. Frease has spent more time on the bench than anyone expected him to. Everyone involved is tired of talking about the Dec. 10 fight with Cincinnati that saw an unsuspecting Frease get punched by Yancy Gates and need stitches under his left eye to close the cut, but there's no question Xavier hasn't been the same team since. A senior class that was the biggest reason the Musketeers reached as high as No. 8 in the national polls in December now must lead the way and keep the NCAA Tournament streak alive.
"This team came into the season with a lot of expectations and possibly got crushed by those expectations," Frease said. "We still have a really good chance to do big things. If we can pull this thing together, we have the talent. We have the firepower.
"Sometimes people are forgetting that when were playing well were one of the best teams in the country. We also know its our fault the games where we remind people of that have been few and far between. But as we come down the stretch here we can play and do some damage."
Frease is playing better of late, and that could be the biggest reason -- in every sense of the word -- to think Xavier can put together a strong finish.
He's reached double-digit scoring in each of Xavier's last four games, getting 19 points and 14 rebounds against Richmond on Feb. 25 and 18 points and 12 rebounds in his final home game against Charlotte last weekend. Frease became the 50th member of the Xavier 1,000 career point club last Saturday with his first basket in the Charlotte game, not long after being honored on the Cintas Center floor with his parents.
Both were milestones, and neither was a given. Frease has been a four-year contributor at Xavier but was suspended for more than a week of fall practice in October by head coach Chris Mack for "not fulfilling all the responsibilities of a Xavier basketball player." Mack took Frease out of the starting lineup three times this year as the Musketeers searched for a spark amidst a string of unpredictable and uninspiring performances. Until recently, he hasn't matched his junior year numbers of 11.7 points and better than 7 rebounds per game.
"Kenny has had his ups and downs but hes been an impact player for us at times," Mack said. "Hopefully, he can go out on the right note and be an impact player for us down the stretch here."
Frease has shown signs of maturity and has maintained a strong work ethic and what he calls "a responsibility to the younger guys on the team" throughout the season. It was Frease who reached out to Gates in the days following the fight to make amends, and through all that's happened since, Frease has remained positive about his team and his own personal final chapter at Xavier.
"Its sort of bittersweet," he said of his college carer coming to an end. "Ive built a life here at Xavier. I wouldnt have made any other decision other than this one, spending my college career here. Ive loved my time here."
Said Marge Frease: His head is definitely in the right place. He knows the things hes done right. He knows the things hes done wrong.
Hes learned from his mistakes."
Marge Frease is a former college basketball player at Youngstown State. She pushed her son into the game at a young age, but not without a lot of work. She said Kenny was 5'2 as a second grader but enjoyed playing and talking football with his father and initially spurned his mother's recommendations that basketball might eventually be his best sport.
"When you grow up in Massillon, Ohio, you just want to play football," Kenny Frease said. "I was basically a foot taller than everybody I was playing basketball against once I started. It came easy, so it was easy to like it.
Kenny Frease was almost 6-foot by the time he started taking the game seriously in fifth grade in a local church league. He soon started playing on the AAU circuit and gave up football altogether. He was good enough to start at Perry High School as a 6'9 freshman.
"You could immediately see that he had skills," said Rob Toth, whose first year as Perry's head coach was Frease's freshman year. "He had pretty good passing skills, a decent shot, and he would compete. But other teams were just banging and beating the heck out of him, and that took its toll."
Toth said coaches "from just about everywhere" stopped by Perry at some point to recruit Frease, whose initial goal was just to get to 225 pounds, a far cry from his current listed playing weight of 275. Toth said then-Xavier coach Sean Miller was the first to seriously recruit Frease, and Mack, then a Xavier assistant, was also a frequent visitor.
"Making that first impression was big for Kenny, and he really felt comfortable at Xavier," Toth said.
Frease missed a good portion of his junior season in high school after getting hit in the eye by an opposing player during a game, which made the December incident even scarier for those closest to Frease. Toth said doctors weren't sure Frease would be able to play basketball again after the high school incident, and that drove Frease to work even harder once he received medical clearance to return.
When Frease is playing well, he commands double teams in the post, has a soft touch around the rim and can get Xavier started on the attack with rebounds and blocked shots. That's the player Xavier needs him to be.
"I haven't talked to Kenny since last fall, but I know him as a player and I like what I see lately," Toth said. "He's playing with confidence. He's playing with urgency. Nobody knows what's going to happen, but I see a guy who's involved and wants to go out the right way."
Mom wants him to go out the right way, too, and she'll be in the stands for every game from here on out.
He tells me all the time he knows I get more nervous than he does, Marge Frease said. "I just want the best for him and this team. They deserve to go out feeling good about themselves."