By Andrew Kahn
Kansas has gotten plenty of attention this season, but most of it has been directed at Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, freshmen stars who could be the top two picks in the NBA draft. Another freshman, Wayne Selden, Jr., and sophomore Perry Ellis get plenty of ink, too. All four average in double figures for the No. 8 Jayhawks. The most important player for Kansas, however, is the remaining starter, junior point guard Naadir Tharpe.
Tharpe is the only scholarship player left from the Kansas team that went to the national championship two years ago. He is one of just two upperclassmen, along with transfer Tarik Black, in Bill Self’s rotation. Self needs a point guard to set the tone defensively and run an efficient offense that maximizes the team’s big-time scorers. At times this season, Tharpe has been that player.
The 5’11” Tharpe is averaging 30 minutes, 8.9 points, and 5.1 assists per game while shooting 45 percent from the field, 39 percent from deep, and 82 percent from the line. All of his statistics are way up from his first two seasons, when he came off the bench behind Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford, and Ben McLemore.
“We thought he could come in and be a nice backup,” Self told The Kansas City Star recently, sharing his staff’s feelings towards Tharpe, a consensus top-100 recruit, when he arrived on campus. He’s been so much more. He’s had four 20-plus point games this season, including two in a row in mid-January, when he shot a combined 14-of-17 (and 6-of-8) to help Kansas beat top-10 teams Iowa State and Oklahoma State. He had 19 points, five assists, and just one turnover in a win over Oklahoma last Monday that gave Kansas its 10th-straight Big 12 title.
Tharpe hasn’t been perfect. In a rematch with Oklahoma State on Saturday, he had as many turnovers as points (six). The Jayhawks turned it over 22 times in total and lost 72-65. Turnovers are the only thing holding back a Kansas offense that is still the sixth-best in the country according to KenPom.com.
The Jayhawks are in the mix for a No. 1 seed, meaning they could reach the second weekend with less-than-stellar performances. To advance further, however, they’ll need Tharpe to play at a high level. He’s shown an ability to get to the rim when the shot clock is winding down as well as hit the three-point shot more consistently than many of Self’s previous point guards.
Wiggins and Embiid are one-year wonders, passing through on their way to NBA stardom. They’ll grab the headlines through March, but Tharpe is the X-factor.
Andrew Kahn is a contributor to CBS Local Sports who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn
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