The notion that exhibition games don't matter couldn't have been reinforced more than by the curious case of Kansas freshman guard Naadir Tharpe.
When KU took the floor in early November against Pittsburg State and Fort Hays State, it was without starting guards Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson, who were serving a suspension. There was panic across Jayhawk Nation that an embarrassment might be in store against one of the two Division II programs, but Tharpe, playing in front of the Allen Fieldhouse crowd for the first time, averaged 15.5 points per game in a couple of easy Kansas wins.
After that, the expectations for Tharpe among the fan base surged — as it turned out, toward the unreasonable. In the eight regular-season games Tharpe has played, he has averaged just 8.6 minutes per game.
KU coach Bill Self hasn't gotten too deeply into the reasons that Tharpe has not been used of late to spell Taylor even when Taylor is noticeably fatigued. But, odds are, it amounts to this: Tharpe is a true freshman who is learning what it takes to play point guard under Self, and Self is not in the business of putting players on the floor simply to give them experience or confidence at the expense of the overall product.
"I'm not going to tell you everything it is," Self said. "He's just got to play better. You can say the same thing about any of our players if you don't put them in. The reason guys don't get in the game is you feel more comfortable with the guys that are in the game. I'll just leave it at that."
Tonight's game against Davidson in the Sprint Center appeared to be a great opportunity for Tharpe to become more acclimated when Self announced after KU's win over Ohio State on Dec. 10 that Taylor would be having surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.
But Self said that Taylor's recovery has gone well — he did full-speed shooting drills on Friday and attempted to go up and down on Sunday — and he expects Taylor to be available for the Wildcats.
"I think he'll play unless something negative happens (Sunday)," Self said. "He won't play 30 minutes or anything, but if he doesn't have a set-back today then I think he'll at least play a little bit."
If Taylor plays a handful of minutes, Tharpe could get some of his time. Or Self could just stick with Conner Teahan along with Johnson and Travis Releford on the perimeter. Self didn't tip his hand, saying he's "pretty comfortable" with Tharpe playing.
"I think Elijah needs to play well whenever Naadir is out there and kind of take over the vocal and leadership responsibilities," Self said. "Naadir played a lot early with the exhibition games and things, and he just hasn't played as well the last month. Ever since the Kentucky game he hasn't played as well. I hope he does, because we could certainly use him, even if it's for giving us three or four minutes a half. That would be good for Tyshawn."