Naadir Tharpe was curious. A little bit, anyway. So he went looking for his coach at practice.
Monday night, he had pieced together the best half of his young Kansas career, a supporting performance that had served as a catalyst for KU’s 83-62 victory over rival Kansas State. He finished with seven points (all in the first half) and eight assists, and his 27 minutes were the most he’d play since the season opener against Southeast Missouri State on Nov. 9.
But Tharpe wasn’t so curious about that. He has plenty of confidence in his offensive skills. No, he was most intrigued that Kansas coach Bill Self had designated him, all of 5 feet 11, to guard K-State leading scorer Rodney McGruder for a large chunk of Monday’s game.
“I was excited he gave me that chance,” Tharpe said. “It was funny, because yesterday at practice I went up to him and asked “Coach, why’d you decide to put me on McGruder?’
“And he said he just wanted to see how I would do.”
Three months ago, that conversation probably would have never happened. Back then, Tharpe was still a sophomore trying to cement his spot in the rotation. And Self was busy telling anyone who would listen that Tharpe’s defense had to improve if he was going to play consistent minutes.
These days, that’s changed. Tharpe, a Worchester, Mass., native, has solidified his spot as Kansas’ first (and sometimes only) guard off the bench. And if he keeps performing as he did against Kansas State, Self may have to reconsider how he divides the backcourt minutes.
Tharpe’s next opportunity will come Saturday, when Kansas (20-4, 8-3 Big 12) returns to the floor against Texas (11-13, 3-8) at 8 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse. Tharpe could be matched up with Texas sophomore guard Myck Kabongo, a former top recruit who will be playing his second game back after serving a 23-game NCAA suspension.
For now, Self appears content to ride senior starter Elijah Johnson, who is shooting 25 percent (19 for 76) in Kansas’ last eight games. Kansas’ best hope for a long March run still rests with an improved Johnson, Self says, and he believes Johnson will eventually pull out of his offensive hole.
But Tharpe, who averaged 5.5 minutes last year as a freshman, certainly has made his case.
"I feel like I’m starting to play a little better than I did before, earlier in the season," said Tharpe, who is averaging 5.6 points and 2.8 assists. "I guess if you want to say things are starting to click, you could put it that way. But I think a lot of it comes from my teammates and my coaches giving me confidence."
On Monday, with the Jayhawks in the midst of a maddening three-game losing streak and K-State entering Allen Fieldhouse, Tharpe gave the Jayhawks what they had been missing during an early February funk. A point guard that can break opponents down off the dribble. A player that can drive and set up freshman Ben McLemore for open looks. A creative spark who can make plays.
“He gets into the paint so easily,” KU senior Jeff Withey said, “and he’s so fast. Like Coach always says, he needs to be our pit bull and just cut the head off the snake. That’s what we say.”
Tharpe’s next challenge is proving that he can stay consistent and be just as aggressive against other quick guards. Last year, Tharpe entered Kansas as a somewhat unheralded recruit who had a reputation for being one of the most charming and likable guys on the summer AAU circuit. He came from a prestigious prep program — Brewster Academy, which also produced Thomas Robinson — but he learned soon enough that the college adjustment would be slow.
“You come in and you think you know you have the answers,” Tharpe said. “And you think you know what right’s and what’s wrong.
“But having coach (Self) around, and being able for him to guide me, you actually don’t know what’s going on. So you actually listen to him (and) learning is basically the most important thing.”
In his second season, Tharpe’s distribution skills have been on display. He had a career-high 12 assists against American on Dec. 29 and his playmaking ability helped McLemore go for 30 points against K-State. But he’s also been quick to pull the trigger from the perimeter — sometimes a little too quick — and he’s shooting worse (26.9 percent) than Johnson during conference play.
So maybe Tharpe isn’t the total solution for the Jayhawks’ guard issues. But if the Jayhawks want to continue their Big 12 title streak and make another long tourney run, he’ll certainly have to be part of the answer.
For Self, the answers start with defense. And if Tharpe can continue to make an impact on the defensive end, Self may have a hard time keeping him out of the lineup.
“He’s good with the ball, and he’s got good vision, and he can make a shot,” Self said. “He just needs to be aggressive and drive it, then let that set up everything else.”