Tharpe is the only choice to lead KU
It seems like a lifetime ago and in college basketball years, which are measured on the same curve as dog years, it might as well have been.
In reality, it was just four months ago -- four months ago today, in fact -- that Kansas beat Duke in the Champions Classic in Chicago.
And it looked so easy, didn't it? The Jayhawks won by 11, freshman Andrew Wiggins scored 22, his recruiting class mate Wayne Selden Jr. added 15 and some less-heralded freshman by the name of Joel Embiid came off the bench to get seven rebounds.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to that waltz down Easy Street.
It's called a season and the one that belongs to the Jayhawks, like many others in the game, especially this year, hasn't exactly followed a straight arrow.
"Probably the worst thing that happened to us was all those young kids playing good against Duke, because I think they thought subconsciously that they were better than they were," coach Bill Self said. "In that game, 'Hey, Wayne's great, Frank [Mason] is great.' and I think they all thought it would be like that and that wasn't the case. "
Of course, even an up-and-down year for Kansas is a petty good year. The Jayhawks head to the Big 12 tournament in possession of their 10th consecutive regular-season crown, a 23-8 overall record and more good wins than bad losses. The question now, especially with Embiid nursing a bad back, is just where Kansas goes from here.
- That's what March is all about, after all. Survive and advance; onward and upward. But sometimes there is merit in looking back. And for Kansas, one of a select group of intriguing teams that could win it all, taking a sneak peek at what has happened just might help the Jayhawks with what could happen in the next month.
In every game that Kansas has lost, at least by Self's way of thinking, there has been a common theme and it's not the theme anyone would guess.
The easy answer, of course, is to point toward the freshmen. Instability and yo-yo results certainly have the tell tale marks of youth (just ask Kentucky). Except Self points in the exact opposite direction when he tries to figure out why things have gone right and wrong for the Jayhawks this year.
"The common denominator, to me, for when we don't play well is we become fragmented," Self said. "That's more of a sign of leadership."
So if you're looking for the most important player on this Kansas team going forward, don't look at Wiggins or even Embiid.
Look no further than Naadir Tharpe.
The junior point guard has been and will continue to be the key to the Jayhawks' success.
The proof, as always, is in the numbers. When he plays well and with aggression, Kansas wins. When he fades into the wallpaper, the Jayhawks usually follow. In Kansas' eight losses, Tharpe shot 17-for-54 (31 percent); in the other 22 (Tharpe didn't play in the season opener), he's 72-of-143 (50 percent).
"When you're on the road, when you can't hear, can't communicate, players look to somebody for organization," Self said. "That has to be Naadir."
A natural talker with a confident personality, Tharpe didn't come by his role easily or naturally. At the start of this season, much of the leadership came from Self. That's never a good thing and certainly wasn't for the Jayhawks. Coaches can only do so much from the sidelines, so Self challenged Tharpe to take charge.
He didn't right away. If fact, he struggled so much to figure things out that Self benched him in favor of Mason.
That knocked both Tharpe and Kansas off their moorings a little bit -- the Jayhawks lost both games that Tharpe served as a sub -- and Self knew it might. But the coach was willing to risk the losses in favor of the greater good.
"I think it set him back a little bit," he said. "He goes in thinking this is his time and we tell him, 'Well, if this is the best you've got, we've got to go with somebody else.' But what makes Naadir really good are his intangibles, and he wasn't playing to those intangibles."
To his credit, and due to Self's willingness to roll the dice, the Tharpe who returned to the starting lineup was a different player. Kansas went on to win 10 of its next 11, rolling through the Big 12 with such ease that the Jayhawks wrapped up the regular-season crown with three games left to play.
The turnaround wasn't all Tharpe, though.
Somewhere around mid-January, Self started to see something he hadn't seen with his team earlier -- joy.
Early in the season Self felt a lot like John Calipari sounds right now -- exasperated. His players looked more like businessmen than college basketball players. There was no levity, no relaxation. Instead they were consumed by the pressure and overwhelmed by the attention.
Strangely, losing some games early -- especially the loss at home to San Diego State on Jan. 5 -- took that burden away.
"That was an 'Oh wow, we're not as good as everybody thought we are,' but then again it was good because they didn't do anything to deserve the spotlight initially," Self said. "I think it was good to be humbled and then they started to have fun. They were trying so hard not to screw up that they weren't having any fun. They finally started to enjoy playing. I'd been begging them to do that."
Of course, sports are nothing if not fickle, and as good as Kansas looked for a while, the Jayhawks looked that bad in the regular-season finale against West Virginia.
Self sent Tharpe back to the bench for a large part of that one.
But with the benefit of hindsight and the bruises from a bumpy road already traveled, Self heads to Kansas City feeling better about his team than he did way back in November, when things looked so good on the outside but needed so much work on the inside.
"I think we've done pretty well," he said. "I'm actually thrilled to death and proud of our guys. We've taken the steps of a championship-caliber team. We're not there yet. We still have things to tighten up, but I'm really happy with how this season has gone."
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