College Basketball Nation: Naadir Tharpe
As talk slowly turns to NCAA tournament preparedness, plenty of teams around the nation come with a caveat.
In East Lansing, Mich., the Spartans can’t wait until they get healthy.
In Syracuse, N.Y., the Orange can’t wait until their offense comes around.
In Lexington, Ky., the Wildcats can’t wait until the kids put it all together.
That's not the case in Lawrence, Kan. The Jayhawks simply can’t wait until March.
In doing so the Jayhawks also unofficially served notice to the four potential No. 1 NCAA tournament seeds: Florida, Wichita State, Arizona and Syracuse -- all projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi as top seeds in Monday's Bracketology -- had better finish the regular season strong. KU is looking more and more like a top seed and already has constructed a resume strong enough to snatch one.
It has been an impressive job by KU coach Bill Self to mold a team that starts three freshmen and relies heavily on a fourth coming off the bench. As Kentucky coach John Calipari can attest, it’s not easy relying on freshmen talent.
Kansas took its time getting to this point. Playing a challenging nonconference schedule that included current top-15 teams Florida, Duke, Villanova and San Diego State certainly revealed flaws early on.
A snapshot of the Jayhawks earlier in the season showed a number of problems, including instability at point guard and uncertainty from their most talented player -- freshman forward Andrew Wiggins.
Self appears to have worked all of that out now. Wiggins sent a pretty loud message against Texas on Saturday. The Longhorns shut him down in their first meeting, but he was unstoppable in the rematch, scoring 21 points -- including three 3-pointers.
Junior guard Naadir Tharpe has brought valuable experience to the point guard position that showed late against the Sooners. Twice when Oklahoma had the ball trailing by just one possession late in the second half, Tharpe came up with a steal to prevent the Jayhawks from being tied or losing their lead.
It was Tharpe’s game-high 19 points that led Kansas, which had five players score in double figures. The Jayhawks have four players who average double figures scoring, led by Wiggins’ 16.4 points per game.
That kind of balance is what makes Kansas, which is also shooting more than 50 percent from the floor in conference play, so hard to defend.
The Sooners had a chance to take control late in the first half, as five KU players got into early foul trouble and made limited appearances. Tharpe played nine minutes, Wiggins 10 and Perry Ellis 11 due to early foul trouble.
It mattered little as freshman guard Wayne Selden Jr. scored 13 of his 15 points before halftime. The Jayhawks flexed their depth and, despite having key players on the bench, forged a 42-33 lead at intermission.
Rebounding is also a balanced affair for KU. Five players had at least four boards against the Sooners, and those same five players outrebounded Oklahoma 32-29.
Freshman center Joel Embiid grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds for KU. His continued development is another reason the Jayhawks look tournament-ready. The 7-footer entered Monday second in the Big 12 in blocks per game with 2.6 and collected six against the undersized Sooners.
If you aren't yet familiar with Embiid or any of the Jayhawks, you might want to learn their names. They look like a team that’s going to be playing for a while come tournament time.
By Saturday evening, the Mountaineers may actually be turning heads.
Bob Huggins' foray into the Big 12 has not gone terribly well. A lousy season last year, a slow start this season and a geographic no-man's land have combined to make West Virginia the worst thing possible -- forgotten.
But in the last two weeks, the Mountaineers have edged their way back to relevancy. Four wins in the last five, and three in a row have pushed West Virginia to a respectable 6-4 in the conference. The win against a travel-weary Oklahoma marked the first for WVU against a ranked opponent since 2011-12 and pushed its RPI to a bubblicious 69.
Beating Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma is nice. Beating Kansas at the Phog (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) would be even bigger for both the Mountaineers' résumé and their return to the national conversation. It's the first of a torturous run for the Mountaineers -- the Jayhawks are the first of six ranked teams with which WVU will finish -- but the Mountaineers will need to gain some name brand wins to really make something happen.
Might as well start with the first.
It's not a terrific matchup. West Virginia simply doesn't have much to matchup with Kansas' inside game, but if the Mountaineers backcourt combo of Eron Harris and Juwan Staten can play as they have been, that's a pretty good equalizer.
Harris scored 28 in the OT win against the Sooners, his sixth consecutive double-figures game.
Then there's Staten. Few are playing better -- and more -- than the Dayton transfer. In that three-game win streak, Staten has played all but two minutes and is averaging 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.6 assists.
He and Harris will need everything they have to win at Kansas, but if West Virginia wants to be more than a curiosity, this is the time to turn some heads.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Midway through the first half came a play that defined not just Texas' 81-69 victory over Kansas, but the Longhorns' season.
Texas guard Isaiah Taylor continued his dribble and crashed into Kansas center Joel Embiid after a reaching foul had already been called. Embiid tried to snatch the ball away, and, as Taylor jerked it away, it sailed out of bounds.
The brief physical exchange left the 6-foot-1 Taylor standing toe-to-toe and jawing in the face of the Jayhawks’ 7-footer.
Taylor made it clear he wasn’t backing down.
Neither was Texas.
Following Taylor’s lead, Texas brought the fight to Kansas.
The Longhorns don’t have a roster full of projected NBA first-round picks, but they have toughness. And it will carry them to more marquee wins like Saturday's.
"I felt like Texas was the hungrier team today," Kansas coach Bill Self said.
"They say that the offensive tempo and defensive tempo ends and starts with me," Taylor said. "Just knowing that they encourage me to do that, it helps my team and it helps my confidence."
They know how fast things can turn. Texas started Big 12 play with consecutive losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and flirted with a third loss at Texas Tech before squeezing out a victory. Now that the Horns have won four in a row over ranked teams and, at 6-2, sit one game behind Kansas for first place, Holland said there was no room for complacency.
"We don’t think we’re better than what we are," Holland said. "We know who we are as a team; we know what we have to get better at. We’re not going to let it get to our heads or anything like that."
Texas coach Rick Barnes won’t let it, or more three-hour practices will be in the forecast.
With a week off between games, Barnes allowed the team to have Sunday and Monday off after their victory over Baylor last Saturday. Barnes noted that the team hasn't "responded well to two days off."
Right on cue, the players returned to the court Tuesday and were flat and listless. Instead of allowing them to stay that way, Barnes kept the team practicing until two hours became three. At a time of the season when he normally tapers off hard practices, it sent a message.
"I didn’t feel like we were getting done what we needed to get done," Barnes said. "You’re always tweaking and adding some things, but it was more just the mental side of it."
The Longhorns responded to Barnes' prompting. Thursday’s practice was back at the level Barnes expected, and it carried over into their game against the Jayhawks.
Texas held the Jayhawks to 38.5 percent shooting from the floor, which was second only to 29.8 percent in a loss to San Diego State as Kansas' worst percentage of the season. The Longhorns frustrated Andrew Wiggins, who was coming off a career-best 29 points against Iowa State. The freshman star missed his first nine shots from the floor and finished with seven points on 2-of-12 shooting.
"That was definitely the toughest team we’ve played, probably even some of our [nonconference] games we had," Kansas guard Naadir Tharpe said.
Texas' toughness comes from getting contributions from seemingly whoever is in the lineup.
Jonathan Holmes added to Taylor's scoring outburst with 22 points of his own. Holland tied a career-high with 11 rebounds and Cameron Ridley added 10. Ridley and Prince Ibeh also had four blocks each as the Longhorns' 12 blocks tied a season high.
"We’re not just counting on one guy," Barnes said. "We’ve had different guys at different times do different things to help us win, and that’s what has been the beauty of this group."
Depends on who is doing the viewing. Holland said the beauty was in knowing there is more to come.
"The best thing about it is we know we haven’t peaked yet," Holland said. "We still have a lot of room to get better, and we’re looking forward to it."
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The lure, at least in part, is still the kid. Even with Joel Embiid's emergence as the new best prospect in 20 years, the old best prospect in 20 years (not to be confused with Jabari Parker, last year’s best prospect in 20 years) is still part of the curiosity.
And then Andrew Wiggins is meh for two games, maybe a B- for the weekend. He played, in his coach’s estimation, the worst game of his baby-aged career on Saturday, and needed Bill Self to light a fire under him at halftime to chalk up a deceptive 17 points in a 78-68 win against Baylor. Deceptive because it was so quiet, 10 of the points coming at the free throw line, the other seven parsed out in the context of the game, none in really jaw-dropping fashion.
Yet it doesn’t matter, not to Kansas, not to a giddy fan base that is dreaming of an April weekend in Dallas, and it really shouldn’t matter to Wiggins.
The Jayhawks are beyond all of that now, beyond the fretting of what will happen if Wiggins has an off night, beyond falling apart if, heaven forbid, a freshman has the audacity to play like a freshman for a weekend, and well beyond being a one-man team.
Wiggins could still become the greatest prospect in 20 years, but for now, he is exactly what he should be, what every freshman used to be before they were tracked as soon as they could lace up a pair of high tops.
“Because of our society, the hype, if you don’t produce you’re the most talked about person,” Self said. “If you do, it’s expected, so it’s really a no-win. There was no way he was going to live up to the hype.”
Now he doesn’t have to. As Kansas collects its fifth win a row, its fourth against ranked opponents, the story is less and less about Wiggins. The draw isn’t so much to see what the kid can do, but rather what the Jayhawks are doing.
That’s what’s supposed to happen. Teams are supposed to come together somewhere between January and March, find an identity, master the process. The ones left relying on just one player this late in the game? If you see them in March, you aren’t likely to see them for long.
“I like where we’re at,” Self said. “Considering after San Diego State, losing at home, to flip it and play like we did three days later against Oklahoma and get it going, we showed some toughness. We’ve definitely played better over the last five games than we have all season long.”
They are playing better because everyone is doing more.
On Saturday night, Wiggins, Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden Jr. were a combined 6-of-22. So Naadir Tharpe picked them up with 21 points, while Jamari Traylor and Tarik Black combined for 17 off the bench.
Against Baylor, Wiggins had 17, Ellis had a team-high 18 and Selden put himself on "SportsCenter" with a dive over the press table into the stands for an assist to Embiid play that was so ridiculous, even his opponent didn’t care if replay showed he was out of bounds.
“That was a great play by him to even get it,” Baylor’s Brady Heslip said. “Maybe he deserves it because that was great hustle by him.”
And for the record, Wiggins is just fine, too. He is still Kansas’ leading scorer and in 18 games has failed to notch double figures just three times.
His biggest problem, if you can call it that, is he’s too nice. He’s a sweet-natured, easygoing kid, the kind who should make his parents proud.
It drives his coach bananas.
After a stagnant first half during which Wiggins was far too content shooting jumpers, Self challenged him to get aggressive.
“He told me to do what I do best which is attack the rim, get more rebounds and get more involved,” Wiggins said.
The result: eight trips to the free throw line and one 3-pointer launched, as opposed to the three in the first half.
Self also switched Wiggins on Heslip, and the freshman’s length all but stuffed the hot shooter. Heslip went 4-for-4 from the arc in the first half, and just 2-of-5 in the second.
Ideally, though, all of that would happen on its own. Self wouldn’t have to challenge him.
“He leaves me wanting more,” Self said.
There was a time when a visitor to Kansas might have felt the same.
You come to see the kid.
You leave impressed by the team.
Kansas has lost exactly twice in the past 46 games at Allen Fieldhouse, so the Jayhawks and their dedicated fan base tend to remember the L's.
Follow up a road win at the Phog with a celebratory backflip and you’re certain to never be forgotten.
Follow up a road win at the Phog and celebratory backflip with a shot over the bow directed at Kansas’ stud freshman?
Welcome to infamy, Marcus Smart.
The Jayhawks were in need of someone new to hate after Missouri ditched them for the SEC. Thanks to Smart’s perfect 10 and preseason suggestion that perhaps Andrew Wiggins play a game before being considered the greatest college basketball player of all time, Oklahoma State has at least temporarily filled the void.
To which we say, thank you, Mr. Smart.
The truth is, the Oklahoma State sophomore was merely doing what kids do when he turned his flip, and as for his preseason "knock" against Wiggins, he was just speaking the truth. The kid had to prove it.
But there is nothing like a little vitriol, contrived or not, to make a game more fun.
And Allen Fieldhouse will be a whole lot of fun Saturday for the 4 p.m. ET tipoff.
This game lost a little bit of its luster early, as Kansas’ record got a little sideways through growing pains and Oklahoma State regrouped after losing Michael Cobbins. But everything seems back in order.
The Big 12 right now is the best conference in the country, and with apologies to Iowa State, these are the top teams in that league.
Once dogged by questions of what ails them, the Jayhawks are hitting their stride. They have won three in a row, including an absolute drubbing of Kansas State and on the road at Iowa State. Wiggins, who was doing too much alone early in the season, now has plenty of help, much of it coming in the form of fellow lottery pick Joel Embiid.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have a three-game tear of their own to claim, with Smart averaging 22 over that span.
Aside from the sideshow shenanigans, what makes this game intriguing is that one team’s weakness is really the other’s strength. Kansas’ biggest attribute is its frontcourt, Oklahoma State’s the backcourt.
Naadir Tharpe has to find a way to stop Smart from driving the ball while the Cowboys, sans Cobbins, need Le’Bryan Nash and Kamari Murphy to somehow contain Wiggins, Embiid and Perry Ellis.
And then there is the X factor: Allen Fieldhouse, where Oklahoma State knows it can win and Kansas remembers ...
During Kansas’ preseason practices last October, the eyes of the spectators were locked onto a lanky new arrival.
By then, everyone had heard of Andrew Wiggins. But Joel Embiid was still somewhat of a mystery. Even then, however, the vast potential of the young man from Cameroon who picked up the game a few years ago was evident.
He had moves. He could spin off the baseline and score with either hand. He could swat shots with a rare ease. He could run the floor and finish like a pro.
And throughout this season, he’s gradually morphed into a force that’s an obvious problem for every team outside Lawrence, Kan. He’s second in the nation in block percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy. He has an array of potent post moves now.
Every night, it seems, Embiid does something that makes grown men gush.
His effort in No. 15 Kansas’ 77-70 win over No. 8 Iowa State on Monday night in Ames established a new truth about a Jayhawks program that’s made its case as the best team in the Big 12 and one of the top teams in the country in recent weeks.
Embiid is the most important player on the Kansas roster.
He wasn’t the only star against the Cyclones. Wiggins collected 17 points and 19 rebounds. Naadir Tharpe had 23 points.
But his time on the floor was limited by foul trouble, including a silly flagrant 1 in the first half. He fouled out in the final minute of the game.
By then, however, he’d already proven to the multitude of NBA scouts in Ames for the game that he deserves serious consideration as a No. 1 pick in next summer’s draft.
Before that payday, Embiid can lead Kansas to the Big 12 title and more. His presence on both ends of the floor has added a new dimension to Kansas basketball.
In KU’s past seven games (6-1), Embiid has averaged 13.4 PPG, 8.5 RPG and 3.0 BPG.
There is no ceiling for Embiid, who has as much upside as any college basketball player in the country. And against Iowa State on Monday, he seemed to realize it in the second half.
He didn’t just block Dustin Hogue, he robbed him in midair. He passed out of double teams. He dribbled on the baseline and scored.
He affected every possession when he was available.
But he wasn’t always available (Embiid averages 3.6 fouls per game).
He picked up his second flagrant foul in as many games. He was ejected from Saturday’s win over Kansas State after he threw an elbow that hit Nino Williams.
In Ames, he tussled with DeAndre Kane early in the first half and went to the bench, where he was scolded by Bill Self for disrupting his team’s momentum.
With 15:13 remaining in the first half, the Jayhawks led 15-4. Iowa State, a team that finished 4-for-25 from the 3-point line, managed to tie the game by halftime, 36-36, after Embiid missed a crucial stretch.
Then, the light came on. And Embiid began to compete like a young man who suddenly realized the court was his canvas and he was free to do what he wanted with it (he scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half).
The rest of us could only watch and wonder.
Wonder if this path leads to Olajuwon.
After the game, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg told reporters that Embiid is the best player in America.
He’s not there yet. But he can get there.
If he avoids the nonsense.
Monday’s flagrant foul did not cost the Jayhawks a victory. But it could have.
And that’s what Embiid has to recognize. He’s too important to interrupt his team’s progress with avoidable errors.
He still has a lot to learn. Clearly. He’s still working on passes out of the paint when he’s trapped. He’s still testing his range. He’s still figuring out the difference between establishing position in the post legally and illegally.
But every game, he takes another step, steps that could lead to the late stages of the NCAA tournament if Kansas keeps growing.
The Jayhawks can ride Embiid to the top of the league and beyond.
Based on Monday’s game and the matchups that preceded it, Embiid is beginning to understand that. But that possibility won’t materialize unless he stays on the floor.
Now that you know what you need to watch in every conference in the country in 2013-14, we've turned our attention to the theme of change -- from coaching swaps to player development to good old-fashioned rules, and anywhere in between. Today: Bill Self's sudden youth movement.
For starters, let's get this out of the way: Bill Self's success at Kansas is remarkable -- period, that's it, sentence over, the end. Self's Jayhawks have now won or shared nine consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles, a streak that would be crazy in a top-heavy mid-major league but is utterly jaw-dropping in a league like the Big 12. He has won more back-to-back regular-season Big 12 titles than he has lost home games at Allen Fieldhouse. And no, I have no problem doubling down on that stat. It's completely insane.
To dig into the past decade of Kansas rosters is to gaze upon the glories of personnel development. Every season, Self's teams have been a combination of talented youngsters, promising stars and reliable, program-sculpted veterans; every season, players from one group slowly move into the other.
In 2008, when Kansas won a national title, Sherron Collins played 50.2 percent of the Jayhawks' available minutes; in 2009, he was the team's leading scorer. That season, sophomore Cole Aldrich anchored the low block; Marcus and Markieff Morris served as understudies. In 2010, Marcus Morris earned a starting role at power forward alongside Collins, Aldrich, and rare one-and-done freshman Xavier Henry. In 2011, all three players left, and the Morris twins were backed up by an intriguing sophomore named Thomas Robinson. In 2012, after the Morris twins departed, Robinson morphed into a national player of the year candidate, and little-used three-year center Jeff Withey assumed the other frontcourt role. Last season, Withey was the stalwart on the low block, senior forward Kevin Young jumped from playing 27.6 percent of his team's available minutes to starting and seniors Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson joined lottery pick freshman Ben McLemore in the backcourt.
And so on. This is the single defining characteristic of Self's tenure: He has built lineups in the classical style -- developing players from clueless freshmen into All-American-level veterans while adding a dash of raw talent along the way. Every season, his teams are extremely good because every season there's another guy finally ready to make the most of his shot.
Every season, that is, except this one.
It is entirely possible Self has assembled his most purely talented group this season. There's some kid named Andrew Wiggins, and maybe you've heard of him, but there's also Wayne Selden, Joel Embiid, Perry Ellis, Conner Frankamp and Jamari Traylor. Are all of these players good? Yes. Are any of them seniors? No. Well, OK, but are any of them juniors? Also no!
Self has three upperclassmen on his team. They are point guard Naadir Tharpe (who earned his first major, and often shaky, run last season), forward Tarik Black (a graduate-exception transfer from Memphis who arrived in Lawrence just a few months ago) and Justin Wesley (a barely-used redshirt senior). That's it.
Which is what makes this such a completely fascinating season for Kansas beyond the Wigginsanity. For the first team since 2007, Self is coaching a team whose best players are freshmen, whose most reliable returning player (Ellis) is a sophomore, whose lone key senior spent the last three years 500 miles to the east, whose junior point guard remains an open question.
It's a good thing Wiggins and Selden and everyone else are so talented. They better be quick studies. Self Basketball 101 is usually a multiyear course. The advanced seminar is a matter of weeks.
That sounds a little silly, doesn't it? Really, when isn't it a good time to be a Kansas fan? In 10 seasons under Bill Self, the Jayhawks have won or shared the last nine Big 12 regular-season titles, a ridiculous streak no program in the country, not even the most dominant mid-majors, can match. They've won six conference tournament titles, and averaged 30.6 wins per season in that span. In 2008, Kansas won the program's third national title thanks to one of the most thrilling shots in college hoops history. They've been seeded No. 1 in the NCAA tournament bracket in five of the last seven seasons.
This success didn't come after some extended period of suffering; it came after an already very successful coach (Roy Williams) made the difficult decision to take his dream job (North Carolina), which ended up working out for everyone. The Jayhawks play in arguably the best -- and probably the loudest -- building in the country. "Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk" is one of the best sporting songs this side of English football.
Should we go on? The point is, it's always good to be a Kansas fan. Even in the darkest, Ali Farokhmanesh-induced days, the Jayhawks faithful have it better than just about any other program in the country.
And despite all that, I am still willing to argue that this is an especially exciting time for Kansas, mostly thanks to two words:
Before Wiggins' commitment, Kansas was losing all five of its starters -- four seniors and a freshman who might be the No. 1 overall pick -- and replacing them with a handful of minor contributors and a crop of talented but hardly overwhelming talent. Marcus Smart was back at Oklahoma State and gunning for a conference title. The notion that 2013-14 would be the year Kansas' force-choke grip on the Big 12 finally loosened ran rampant through the college basketball cognoscenti.
After Wiggins' commitment, followed by the news that Memphis senior forward Tarik Black would also join up, the whole notion seemed laughable. Self had already reloaded with a very good recruiting class, including Joel Embiid, the No. 1 center, and Wayne Selden, the No. 4 small forward. Then he added a highly skilled 2-3-4 hybrid with handles and a 3-point shot.
It would be easy, given Wiggins' recruitment and the accompanying giddiness, to assume the hardest part of Self's job was over. False. In its own way, this season may be the toughest challenge of Self's already illustrious career. This isn't the usual Jayhawks' reload. Typically, when a score of players leaves Lawrence for NBA glory, Self replaces them with a crop of fully ripened second-, third-, and fourth-year players who can play his high-low offense from sheer muscle memory. The Jayhawks have had one-and-dones, but in an now seven-year era culturally dominated by eight-month players, Self has more often achieved success by unleashing the Thomas Robinsons and Jeff Witheys of the world after two or three seasons on the bench.
He won't have that luxury this season. He will be playing more freshmen at the same time than at any point in recent memory.
Because of those freshmen, it has been easy to gloss over how important Kansas' returning players always are to the Jayhawks' success, and how little that will change next season. There are three returning contributors likely to play big minutes: sophomore forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, and junior guard Naadir Tharpe.
Tharpe is easily the most important of the three.
That's not to say he's the best. Ellis, a four-time class 6A Kansas state champion at Wichita Heights High School, had by far the most efficient season of the three in his rookie campaign, posting a 114.1 usage rate and comparable offensive and defensive rebounding percentages to Withey. He played just 33.4 percent of the Jayhawks' available minutes, and he struggled at times, but more often than not he was good. He will be good. Traylor, for his part, is extremely raw and athletic, which also makes him extremely exciting.
But Ellis and Traylor are forwards and with Wiggins, Black, Selden and Embiid, Kansas has at least four guys who can play some combination of the traditional 3, 4, and 5 spots. Ellis will play plenty; he's something close to a lock to start at the power forward spot, thanks to systemic experience alone. It's not that Ellis isn't good. It's that Self doesn't need Ellis to be good -- at least as much as he needs Tharpe.
That's because Tharpe is a veteran point guard on a team noticeably short on both veterans and point guards. Unless mostly untouted freshman Frank Mason surprises, four-star freshman Connor Frankamp, the No. 10 ranked point in the class, is the only other option at the spot.
That sound you heard was Kansas fans collectively shuddering. Tharpe is that kind of player -- clearly talented, clearly getting better, still maddeningly frustrating. His, ahem, nadir (sorry, but it had to happen eventually) last season came in Kansas' loss at TCU, when he finished 1-of-15 on some of the least-advised late-game shots you'll ever see. Tharpe wasn't that bad, obviously, but he was never a really efficient player; he finished with a 99.9 offensive rating, shooting 35.8 percent from inside the arc and 33.0 percent from beyond. Likewise, while he assisted on 28.3 percent of his possessions, he turned the ball over on 21.1 of them. At times, it seemed the only thing keeping Tharpe off the bench was senior guard Elijah Johnson's profound struggles.
For Kansas to legitimately contend as a national title candidate, Tharpe will have to be better. The good news? He won't have to score. Not with Wiggins and Selden, Embiid, Ellis and Black. However, what Tharpe will have to do is arguably just as important. He'll have to play great defense at the point of attack. He'll have to avoid turnovers. He'll have to hit the occasional outside shot. And he'll have to lead Kansas on the break, when it can avoid getting bogged down in the crowded half court, and most effectively unleash Wiggins' massive ability.
The first three, if not givens, seem eminently achievable. The fast-breaking responsibilities are the biggest concern. Last season, per Synergy scouting data, Tharpe ranked in the seventh percentile in the country in transition efficiency. Overall, Tharpe averaged just 0.654 points per transition possession. As the ballhandler, he averaged .821 -- better, but average at best.
Tharpe will have the luxury of playing alongside a swath of talented big men and probably the best amateur basketball player on earth. He won't have to do everything; he won't even have to do all that much. What he will have to do is make good decisions, particularly on the break.
The 2013-14 season is new territory for both Self and the Jayhawks. It is extremely exciting, yes, but like anything worth getting excited about, it's a little scary, too. Tharpe is a three-year veteran at a veteran-led program that is suddenly devoid of veterans, in the most important position on the floor. It's his job to minimize the scary parts and maximize the excitement, to represent the solidity that has defined Kansas in one of the more successful decades in the sport's history.
It's a different kind of pressure than what Wiggins will face -- but it is pressure all the same.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Quick thoughts on Michigan's 87-85 overtime victory over Kansas on Friday at Cowboys Stadium:
Overview: In what was easily the best game of the NCAA tournament thus far, Trey Burke scored 23 points -- all after intermission -- to lead Michigan into the Elite Eight.
Kansas -- the No. 1 seed in the South Region -- appeared to be in command leading 74-66 with 1:22 remaining. But Burke led a charge that saw Michigan outscore the Jayhawks 10-2 in the next 72 seconds to force overtime. The dagger came after KU's Elijah Johnson missed a foul shot with his team leading 76-73. Burke capitalized with a 25-foot 3-pointer that made it 76-76 with four seconds left. Jayhawks guard Naadir Tharpe missed a 3-pointer as the horn sounded.
Kansas (31-6) had led by as many as 14 points in the second half.
No. 4 seed Michigan (29-7) had all the momentum during the extra period. The Wolverines went up 87-82 on two foul shots by Glenn Robinson III before Johnson drilled a 3 on the other end to pull KU within two, 87-85, with 45 seconds left. Jayhawks center Jeff Withey blocked a layup attempt by Burke on the other end. Michigan's Mitch McGary snared the offensive rebound but missed a putback attempt. Kansas snared the board as the shot clock sounded with 9.4 seconds left.
Johnson had the ball on the game's final possession and drove into the lane, where he appeared to have an open layup. But Michigan's Jordan Morgan came over at the last second and appeared to be in position to block Johnson's shot. So Johnson fired a pass to Tharpe on the right wing. Tharpe's 3-pointer at the buzzer was off the mark, and Michigan began to celebrate.
What's next: The Wolverines, after making their first Sweet 16 appearance in 19 years, will meet Florida on Sunday for the chance to go to the Final Four.
After outlasting Oklahoma State 68-67 in two thrilling overtimes, neither the Kansas guard nor any of his teammates did backflips. And, as he predicted they would, the Jayhawks walked out of a sold-out Gallagher-Iba Arena in style -- once again in command of the Big 12 Conference race.
"[Revenge] played a little bit of a factor,” Releford said, “but our main goal is to just win the Big 12.”
Kansas made progress toward both, redressing its home loss to Oklahoma State earlier this season while hopping into the driver’s seat of the Big 12 title chase. The Jayhawks moved one game ahead of the Cowboys atop the Big 12 standings along with Kansas State, a team they have already swept.
“This was huge.”
True, the Big 12 race is far from over. Five conference games remain, and the Jayhawks still have Iowa State and Baylor on the road. But having toppled the Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse already, Oklahoma State had a rare and precious opportunity to effectively end Kansas’ reign of terror over the league. A reign of terror that includes four consecutive outright conference titles and a piece of the Big 12 championship eight straight seasons.
The last time the Jayhawks failed to finish first? In 2004, when Eddie Sutton’s Final Four Cowboys routed the Jayhawks in Stillwater on their way to an outright title.
On Wednesday, Oklahoma State didn’t need a rout. Just a victory. And the young and talented Cowboys came oh-so-close to stoning Goliath.
In a game that featured 16 ties, 23 lead changes and no lead bigger than five points, the night seemed primed for point guard Marcus Smart, who has championed the Cowboys into conference contention. Over a seven-game winning streak, Smart nailed a game-winning shot to beat Iowa State, then spearheaded Oklahoma State to overtime home victories over Baylor and Oklahoma. Smart also was spectacular in the Cowboys’ 85-80 win Feb. 2 in Lawrence, which he capped with a postgame backflip the Jayhawks didn’t forget.
Despite his poorest shooting night of the season, it looked as if Smart still had magic left in the tank Wednesday. With 1:12 left in regulation, he finished off a fast break by nailing a 3-pointer from the wing to tie the game at 57-all.
The next time down the floor with a chance to win the game, however, Smart ignited Oklahoma State’s possession a second too late and was forced into a poor shot, which clanged off the backboard.
Later, the Cowboys had a chance to take their first overtime lead with 26 seconds remaining. But Smart’s driving attempt bounced off the glass, then rolled around and off the rim, forcing the game to a second overtime.
“We knew what was at stake, we knew that Kansas has had a hold on [the league],” said Smart, who scored 16 points but hit just two of 14 shots. “It’s frustrating [we couldn’t come up with the plays].”
As a result, Smart fouled out with 2:24 to go in the second overtime on a charge, stripping the Cowboys of their closer.
“Marcus is a big key to this team,” said backcourt mate Markel Brown, who himself was fabulous in holding Smart’s competition for Big 12 player of the year honors, Ben McLemore, to a season-low seven points. “Once Marcus fouled out, I was like, ‘Oh shoot.’ We need Marcus out there. He brings the toughness out there, he gets stops out there. Doesn’t matter if he’s shooting bad, he can still make that big-time play for you. We needed him out there. Had we had him out there, [the game] might have had a different look.”
Instead, it was the Jayhawks who made the winning play late yet again. After Kansas failed to convert a single field goal in either overtime, backup point guard Naadir Tharpe maneuvered his way through Phil Forte and into the paint before swishing a one-handed floater to give the Jayhawks the 68-67 lead.
“We didn't really have any offense; neither team had any offense,” Self said of the overtimes. “But [Tharpe] certainly made a huge play there late. Biggest play of his life, I'm sure."
With Smart sitting on the bench, the best the Cowboys could get on their final shot was Brown’s fadeaway perimeter jumper that bounced off the front of the rim in the final seconds.
"I felt like I let my teammates down,” Smart said. “I wish I was out there to savor that moment with them, help them out and contribute in the way that I usually do.
“Unfortunately it didn't work out that way this time."
Instead, it worked out how it usually has in Big 12 land -- with the Jayhawks on top once again.
1. Kansas stole one at Oklahoma State. Don't get it twisted: I'm not saying the Jayhawks didn't deserve to win in Stillwater on Wednesday night, because they did. All I'm saying is they managed to get out of that suffocating arena with a 68-67 double overtime win
How so? You can start with Ben McLemore, Kansas's surefire lottery pick, one of the most complete and dangerous offensive weapons in the country. McLemore finished 3-of-12 from the field for seven points in 49 minutes, and usually looked tentative and unwilling to attack. Or you can focus on the huge role played by Kansas guard Naadir Tharpe, who never met a long early-clock jumper he didn't like. He finished 2-for-11 total and 0-of-6 from 3. Or you can look at Kansas's 1-for-11 mark from behind the arc. Or you can look at Oklahoma State's 4-of-21 from 3, or its 32.8 percent shooting overall, or that Cowboys stars Marcus Smart and LeBryan Nash combined to shoot 5-of-24 from the field.
Or maybe you want to chalk all of that up to defense. That would be fair: For all of their other issues, the Jayhawks remain a very difficult team to break down on the defensive end (Kansas has allowed just .90 points per trip in Big 12 play) and Oklahoma State's isn't all that far behind (.95). When two teams finish a double-overtime game with fewer than 70 points, that is slow, hard-fought, defensive basketball, no question about it.
The Jayhawks caught a few breaks, including a tough fifth foul (on a nondescript positional call) on Michael Cobbins and a overtime charge on Smart that sent him to the bench for the rest of the game. After a night of mostly abominable choices, Tharpe's overtime penetration helped Kansas get great looks at crucial times. And Travis Releford -- the lone player on his team to play well for almost all of his minutes -- tip-toed the sideline with just a few seconds left in the second overtime, saving possession and preventing Oklahoma State from one final crack.
But none of that should diminish the Jayhawks' accomplishment. There was a lot on the line Wednesday night, not least of all pole position in the Big 12 title chase. Oklahoma State's defense did its work, Kansas helped out with some ugly offense, and still the Jayhawks were able to get out of Gallagher-Iba with a win.
For as frantic and frustrated as he was all night, when Releford saved the final possession, KU coach Bill Self pumped his fist as violently as he could without spraining something. Most Kansas fans were right there with him.
2. The Mountain West is awesome. Regular readers won't need this reminder; they've been well aware of the conference's numerous merits since November. But for those of you just tuning in to college basketball -- show of hands, it's OK, we know you're out there, don't be shy -- please be advised: You really need to be watching the Mountain West.
Wednesday night was just the latest example. Colorado State -- by my reckoning the best and most well-rounded team in the league, but we'll get to that in a second -- traveled to the Thomas and Mack Center for a huge matchup with UNLV, one the Rebels desperately needed to maintain any pace with CSU and New Mexico at the top of the league standings. And in what has become a seemingly nightly occurrence in the MWC, we got another great tight game with the Rebels winning 61-59. UNLV opened with an early lead, and controlled the game 32-21 at the half, but Colorado State -- led by former Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson (playing the best basketball of his life) -- came roaring back in the second half not once, but twice. With less than four minutes left, it looked like CSU was going to get this one: Wes Eikmeier was getting to the rim, Iverson was scoring buckets, Colorado State's bench was erupting in celebratory grunts, and it just felt like all the momentum, all the swagger, was on the visitors' side.
Then Bryce Dejean-Jones took over. He dropped a pretty pass off to UNLV center Khem Birch, who dunked over Iverson for a three-point play, and followed that up with a follow-and-foul of his own. CSU's Dorian Green missed a 3 on the other end. UNLV senior Anthony Marshall -- part of the backcourt that has often been the Rebels' biggest weakness this season -- made a game winner with just seven seconds left.
The RPI has shone brightly on Colorado State yet again this year, but unlike in 2012, the gap between the Rams' actual performance and their RPI performance hasn't been that wide. This is a really good team -- the best rebounding team in the country. (Colorado State clears its own misses at the second highest rate in college basketball, and no one corrals more defensive rebounds.) In other words, UNLV's win is not only a sign of the power of a good home court, or a nice victory for a group still putting it all together -- though it is all of those, too -- but also practically an official one-way ticket to the NCAA tournament.
And it was all just another night in the Mountain West. I'm telling you, noobs. Get on it.
3. Minnesota can't miss the tournament ... right? The simple answer is no, they can't. Their numbers are too good. They have a top-15 RPI and the second-strongest schedule in the country, (according to the RPI); their nonconference SOS ranks No. 14. When you actually look around the country, and take even a passing glance at the résumés of teams actually on the bubble, you realize how comparatively strong Minnesota's position really is.
Having said that ... the Gophers are not playing good basketball right now. Wednesday night's 71-45 loss at Ohio State was every bit as bad as that score. Minnesota never looked engaged, let alone capable. And this is starting to become a pattern. The Gophers are 4-8 in their past 12 games, the only wins coming at Illinois (back on Jan. 9, when Illinois was playing terrible), at home vs. Nebraska and Iowa, and in overtime at home against Wisconsin last week. On Sunday, the Gophers lost 72-51 at Iowa.
In other words, everything about Minnesota appears to be heading in the wrong direction ... except their NCAA tournament chances. How this ends is anyone's guess.
4. Ole Miss is apparently uninterested in dancing, too. That's the best explanation for the way the Rebels played at South Carolina on Wednesday night. Yes, you read that right: Marshall Henderson and company fell, 63-62, to a team with a 13-13 record and a 3-10 mark in a bad SEC. A team that, after last week's 64-46 home loss to LSU, led coach Frank Martin to say the following: "If you take Bruce Ellington off our team, you probably have 12 leading candidates for the Walking -- what’s that movie called? -- the Return of the Living Dead. The zombie movie. If you took Bruce off our team, our guys would probably win an Academy for their performance in that movie. I’ve been doing this for 28 years, nine of which was a junior varsity high school coach. That means I dealt with 14-year-olds. I’ve never been more embarrassed to call myself a basketball coach than I am today." Right. The Return of the Living Dead, as dubbed by their own head coach -- that team beat Ole Miss Wednesday night.
Ole Miss was already squarely on the bubble beforehand; the Rebels began the night with the No. 52 RPI, a 1-4 mark against the top 50, a mere 5-6 mark against the top 100, some really paltry strength of schedule numbers (133 overall; 280 nonconference) and their only "marquee" win coming at home against Missouri, who destroyed the Rebels on the return visit. Needless to say, the Zombie Gamecocks' No. 205 RPI won't help matters. If you're on the bubble, and you want to go to the tournament, you can't lose that game. Of course, that assumes Ole Miss actually wants to go to the tournament. Which, again, remains an open question.
5. That other Big 12 game was pretty good, too. I'm referring, of course, to Iowa State's 87-82 road win at Baylor. No, the Cyclones and Bears weren't waging the league's marquee matchup Wednesday night, but this game was still important to both team's tournament hopes, and had the effect you might expect on both.
For Iowa State, it is a solid road win to buttress a decent-but-still-incomplete NCAA tournament profile; for Baylor, it's yet another understandable but disappointing loss in a season that has been filled with them. At this point, a team expected to contend for the Big 12 title (and not unreasonably, with Isaiah Austin and the rest of the talent) has settled in to relative mediocrity, and an uncertain bubble fate, at least to date.
STILLWATER, Okla. -- Thoughts from No. 9 Kansas’ thrilling 68-67, double-overtime win over No. 14 Oklahoma State on Wednesday night at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Overview: The Jayhawks didn’t make a single field goal in either overtime. Until Naadir Tharpe swished a jumper with 18 seconds left, which proved to be the game-winning shot.
Before Tharpe’s basket, Kansas went 0-of-7 shooting with three turnovers in the overtimes but kept up with the Cowboys by getting to the free throw line.
Tharpe also struggled to shoot, missing 10 of his first 11 shots. But his last basket will be the shot Kansas -- and Oklahoma State -- fans remember.
By avenging a loss to Oklahoma State in Allen Fieldhouse earlier this season, the Jayhawks moved into a tie with Kansas State atop the Big 12 standings. And they did it despite a miserable offensive output by leading scorer Ben McLemore. The Big 12 player of the year candidate missed his first eight shots and did not score through the first 30 minutes of the game. His first basket came on a follow-up jam with 10:08 left in the second half. McLemore entered the night averaging 16.7 points a game but finished with a season-low seven points.
Turning point: Only after Kansas fouled Marcus Smart out of the game could the Jayhawks finally close out Oklahoma State. Smart fouled out with 2:24 left in the second overtime when he was whistled for a charge on a runner in the paint.
Without Smart on the floor, the Cowboys managed just two points the rest of overtime.
Key player: Kansas center Jeff Withey is known for his defense. But the Jayhawks wouldn’t have won without his offense in overtime. Withey hit seven of eight free throws during the overtimes, which kept the Jayhawks afloat.
Key stat: Smart just could not get the ball to fall. He finished with 16 points but went just 2-of-14 shooting from the floor. The Cowboys had a chance to take the lead in the final minute of overtime, but Smart’s driving shot bounced off the glass, then rolled around and off the rim. Smart also missed the game-winning shot in regulation.
Miscellaneous: Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden was back in Stillwater, sitting courtside. The former Oklahoma State quarterback spent most of pregame chatting with current Cowboys quarterback Clint Chelf. Weeden and former Oklahoma State All-American wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who was also in attendance, were recognized and received a standing ovation during a first-half timeout. ... This was Oklahoma State’s third straight overtime game at home. The Cowboys previously defeated both Baylor and Oklahoma. ... Kansas snapped the Cowboys’ seven-game winning streak. It was Oklahoma State’s longest Big 12 win streak since 2004, when the Cowboys reeled off 11 straight conference wins on their way to the Final Four.
Next game: Oklahoma State visits West Virginia on Saturday. The same day, Kansas will go for revenge against TCU in Allen Fieldhouse.
Kennedy had 15 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, two steals and a block in Pine Bluff’s win against Alcorn State. Kennedy is the only SWAC player in the last 15 seasons to reach those benchmarks in a game. The last D-I center to post those numbers in a game was St. Mary’s Ben Allen in November 2009 against New Mexico State. Pine Bluff (11-2) is now tied with Southern for first place in the SWAC.
Scorer of the Night – Ben McLemore, Kansas
McLemore scored 30 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including 6-of-10 on 3-point attempts, in a win against Kansas State. He also shot 6-of-6 from the free-throw line and added seven rebounds and three steals. Only one other time has a Big 12 player scored at least 30 points, shot better than 50 percent on field-goal attempts and 3-point attempts, and shot 100 percent on free throws this season. That was also McLemore, when he did it on Jan. 9 against Iowa State. Previously, the last freshman to reach those plateaus in a Big 12 conference game was Kansas State’s Michael Beasley in January 2008 against Iowa State.
Bench Player of the Night – Naadir Tharpe, Kansas
Has Kansas finally found its point guard? Tharpe came off the bench to dish out eight assists with only one turnover in 27 minutes against Kansas State. Tharpe now has two games this season off the bench with at least eight assists and one or fewer turnovers. He had 12 assists and no turnovers in December against American. The last Kansas player to do that even once off the bench was Aaron Miles nearly 11 years ago. Miles had eight assists and one turnover in a 103-68 win over Kansas State (irony?) in February 2002.
Stat Sheet Stuffer – Jarvis Threatt, Delaware
Threatt, a distant cousin of former NBA player Sedale Threatt, had 10 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in Delaware’s win over Old Dominion. The Blue Hens used a 10-0 run within the final four minutes to squeeze out a victory. Threatt is the first CAA player with at least 10 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in a game since NC-Wilmington’s Chad Tomko against Hofstra in February 2011.
It left Kansas fans disgusted, TCU fans dumbstruck, and Horned Frogs coach Trent Johnson wandering among court-storming students, offering high-fives and twirling around and looking like a man who had no idea what to do next.
It was the biggest upset of the season. It was also the weirdest.
Wipe your eyes as many times as you like. It happened. The previously 9-12 TCU Horned Frogs, losers of their previous eight games, owners of the 330th-ranked efficiency offense in the country prior to Wednesday night, really did upset the No. 5-ranked Kansas Jayhawks 62-55 in Fort Worth -- the first win over a top-five team in program history.
The obvious question is: How? How does a team so good, so routinely effective both at home and on the road, lose to such a dismal outfit like TCU? How does it trail the entire game behind a Horned Frogs team that was not only 0-8 in the Big 12, but one that had not played to within eight points of any league opponent and was coming off three straight blowout losses to decidedly mediocre teams (21 to WVU, 26 to Baylor, 17 to Texas)?
Here's where the weirdness comes in: Kansas shot just 29.5 percent from the field -- 18-of-61 -- and just 3-of-22 from beyond the arc. Ben McLemore, the man who saved Kansas from a home upset to Iowa State with a 33-point, 10-for-12 night Jan. 9, went just 6-of-16 from the field and 0-of-6 from 3. Jeff Withey was effective but rarely touched the ball. Reserve guard Naadir Tharpe attempted a borderline-shocking 15 field goals -- Tharpe should never shoot the ball 15 times -- and made just two of them. And then there was Elijah Johnson, who, already firmly ensconced in Bill Self's doghouse, continued not only his shooting slump but his streak of poor decision-making and ill-timed turnovers.
Even so, you couldn't watch this game and not come away more willing to indict Kansas than praise TCU. I mean, good for the Horned Frogs -- this is a rare moment in the sun for a program with almost no historical relevance whatsoever, and it should be enjoyed as such. But it was Kansas that failed to pressure the Horned Frogs well enough to generate easy points; it was Kansas that squandered mini-run after mini-run, and flung brick after increasingly forlorn brick into the unforgiving iron.
All the while, TCU fans -- who were possibly out-attended by Kansas fans -- had no idea what to do. At one point, the ESPNU cameras showed the Horned Frogs cheerleaders jumping around and cheering seemingly at random, and while cheer groups do that all the time, I joked that it was probably because they hadn't drilled for the possibility of actually, you know, cheering. It felt that way: TCU fans mustered a "T-C-U, T-C-U" midway through the second half, but mostly they just seemed to sit there and do their best to process the weirdness happening in front of them.
Then they stormed the court.
That's when Johnson, in a move reminiscent of the classic clip of NC State coach Jim Valvano, started to walk off the court, then thought better of it, then offered a few high-fives to onrushing fans -- he, like the rest of the arena, looked like he had no idea what to make of anything happened around him.
Understandably so. It was that big -- and that weird -- of an upset.