LAWRENCE — The clock had ticked for just 35 seconds on Monday night, and Kansas coach Bill Self was looking for an official, forming the universal signal for a timeout.
If it wasn’t the earliest Kansas timeout in Allen Fieldhouse history, it certainly felt like it. In less than 40 seconds, the Jayhawks had allowed Toledo to drill a three-pointer and committed two brutal turnovers, and Self stood near the bench, poised to light into junior point guard Naadir Tharpe.
“I should have taken a timeout five seconds into the game, after our first turnover,” Self said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever taken one that fast before, but I think I would have helped our team a little bit more.”
More than two hours later, after No. 16 Kansas had finished off a perfectly fine 93-83 victory over a previously unbeaten Toledo squad, it was easy to think back to two moments from the Jayhawks’ season. The first was the early timeout, and the verbal takedown directed at Tharpe. The other was a moment back in October, when Self made it clear to anyone who would listen that Tharpe had to be the Jayhawks’ most valuable player.
No, he wouldn’t be KU’s most talented player. On most nights, that would be freshman wing Andrew Wiggins. And maybe he wouldn’t be the most dominant (freshman Joel Embiid) or consistent (sophomore Perry Ellis). But Tharpe had to be something else: Steady and mature, a rock for KU’s young players to lean on.
So it was certainly promising on Monday as Tharpe responded to the early message with a career-high 20 points and eight assists.
“He just had to let me know that what I was doing wasn’t good enough,” Tharpe said.
“I actually told him after the game,” Self added. “I thought he showed some guts to respond, because to me, how we start a game is more dependent on a point guard’s mindset.”
It was the third straight victory for the Jayhawks, who were shaking off the rust from a nine-day break around Christmas after notching consecutive victories over New Mexico and Georgetown.
This latest win might have been the strangest for Kansas, 9-3, which seemed to dominate on offense for most of the second half but could never really bury the Rockets, who shot 46.4 percent for the game. Even more galling for Self: Kansas forced just eight total turnovers while recording just four steals.
“At home, in front of a juiced house, you force eight turnovers and get four steals?” Self said. “And you’re athletic? That’s not very good.”
In the moments after the game, Self wondered if one of his Kansas teams had ever recorded just four steals in a non-conference home game. And in the locker room, he forced his team to ponder their defensive night.
“Are we better defensively today than we were when we played Duke?” Self asked his team. “We spend a lot of time on it. And I’d say the answer is probably no.”
Still, Self was pleased with his team’s offensive output. Ellis finished with a game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Wiggins scored 20 points while adding a handful of acrobatic dunks. But for the most part, it was Tharpe who made it all work on the offensive end.
Tharpe drained seven of his eight field-goal attempts, including four of five from three-point range. In some areas, Tharpe may still be a work in progress. Self obviously wasn’t happy with Tharpe’s five turnovers. Or for that matter, the Jayhawks’ 18 turnovers as a team.
But for a team that has struggled from the outside, most notably during a trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis tourney in the Bahamas, Tharpe is showing signs that he can be part of the solution. In his last six games, Tharpe is shooting 11 of 23 from behind the arc.
“Just being confident,” Tharpe said, “because if we would have kept on thinking about the Bahamas, how we shot the ball, we would still be shooting the ball horrible. So we just have to have the confidence that you’re going to make the next shot.”
For the game, Kansas hit seven of 14 from behind the three-point line, shooting 66.7 percent overall in the second half. And after leading just 43-36 at the half, they needed all of the offense to hold off Toledo. Next up: Kansas will close out its non-conference slate against San Diego State on Sunday, and Tharpe already has his next goal: Work the Jayhawks’ ability to bury opponents.
“We still haven’t shown that killer instinct,” Tharpe said. “I don’t feel like we have it at all, starting with myself.”