LAWRENCE – Naadir Tharpe moved along Massachusetts Streets on a cool night in early April, passing a crowd of college students. It was a Saturday night in a college town, and the streets overflowed with the usual signs of college: Kids blowing off steam after a week of classes.
Among the throng of people, Tharpe, KU’s point guard, tried to keep a low profile. This, he said, was his first time out in public since Kansas’ round of 32 NCAA Tournament loss to Stanford on March 23. Two weeks later, it had already been a rocky offseason.
A revealing photo showing Tharpe with an unidentified woman had surfaced online, going viral and drawing a public admonishment from his coach. (The date of the photo is still unknown.) Back home in Massachusetts, Tharpe later said, his 2-year-old daughter, Amara Grace, was battling undisclosed medical issues.
Tharpe was the starting point guard at Kansas, and when the Jayhawks’ season had floundered, plenty of fingers had been pointed in his direction.
“It comes with a lot of scrutiny,” said forward Jamari Traylor, Tharpe’s roommate and friend, during Kansas’ NCAA Tournament run.
Nearly a month later, Tharpe was ready for a fresh start, announcing his decision to transfer in a joint statement with Kansas coach Bill Self on Thursday afternoon. In the statement, Tharpe cited his daughter’s health issues as one of the main reasons for the move. He would like to play some place closer to his hometown of Worcester, Mass.
But whatever other factors aided in the decision, it’s a clean break for player and program — a Kansas team that is still searching for an answer at point guard after two years of inconsistency at the position.
“Naadir and I have talked numerous times since he’s been here about his role and about his situation back home with his daughter,” Self said in the statement. “He’s told me many times how much he misses his little girl, and she’s had some health issues that has certainly made it difficult for him to be away from her for this extended period of time.”
Self and Tharpe emphasized that Amara is doing better now, but the change of scenery could end up being the healthiest decision for all involved.
“My daughter has current medical issues that require weekly visits to her physician, as well as with a specialist,” Tharpe said. “At this juncture, I feel it is best to be closer to home where I can assist and support in any way necessary.”
Tharpe, who played three seasons at Kansas, will have one year of eligibility remaining. Unless he can secure an NCAA hardship waiver, he will need to sit out one season before being eligible in 2015-16.
“I enjoyed my time here,” Tharpe said. “I appreciate the players that were here before me that I got a chance to play with, and that are still friends with me right now. It’s going to be tough leaving.”
The question now, of course, goes to the Jayhawks’ point-guard position. Kansas probably will be a top-five team in the preseason polls, but Self will need someone to steer the ship.
Sometimes last season, that was Tharpe. Sometimes it wasn't.
Tharpe averaged 8.5 points and 5 assists during an up-and-down junior season. He was selected national player of the week during the Jayhawks’ 7-0 start in the Big 12, and he played a crucial role in a 10th straight Big 12 title. But too often, Tharpe was a non-factor; he shot 25 percent during Kansas’ last six games and often struggled defensively.
Still, Tharpe was the most experienced guard on the roster — by far — and would have been the only scholarship senior on next year’s team. For now, Self can turn to soon-to-be sophomores Frank Mason and Conner Frankamp, and the KU staff continues to recruit point guard Devonte Graham of Brewster Academy, the same school that produced Tharpe.
Mason averaged 5.5 points and 2.1 assists while playing 16 minutes per game in his freshman season, but he shot 41.7 percent from the field. Frankamp came on strong in March but could profile as more of a combo guard. That means that Graham, the No. 36 overall recruit in the country, could be positioned to command major minutes if he picks Kansas over his other finalist, North Carolina State.
For the last two seasons, point guard has vexed Self and been partly responsible for some early losses in March. For parts of those years, Tharpe looked like an answer — or at least part of it. During his sophomore season, he hit a game-winner at Oklahoma State that paved the way for KU’s ninth straight title. This year, he cut down Iowa State with 23 points in a victory at Hilton Coliseum.
“Naadir has been a good player for us in his three years here,” Self said. “But we also respect the fact that he wants to be closer to his daughter.”
For now, the search for a point guard continues. Tharpe is moving on, ready for a new beginning.
“It’s going to be tough leaving a situation like this because of the teammates I’m leaving behind,” Tharpe said. “Everything happens for a reason, and I have to continue my journey a different way.”