Naadir Tharpe knew he didn't have a choice. As the most experienced player in a Kansas jersey, and with his team clinging to a three-point lead in the second half against Oklahoma State, Tharpe dribbled right up to Marcus Smart and looked to fight off the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year.
Except Tharpe couldn't get past Smart. As he tried to crossover, Tharpe got tangled with his defender and nearly froze as Smart took the ball out of his hands. Rather than panic or give up on the play, Tharpe watched as Smart tried desperately to corral the ball and promptly swiped it back. Two dribbles later Tharpe knocked down a long 3-pointer to give Kansas a little breathing room.
If his attitude on that possession wasn't indicative of his refined focus, his comments following the Jayhawks 80-78 victory certainly were.
“I have to be the leader,” Tharpe said, his chest still pounding from a 21-point, six assist performance. “These guys haven't played in these games. I watched Tyshawn (Taylor) and Elijah (Johnson) and I have to lead out there.”
It seemed he had all but forgotten nearly two months ago the Kansas offense had no one to run it.
During Bill Self's boot camp we were told that Frank Mason would steal starting time away from Naadir Tharpe, and whether it was a legitimate threat or wishful thinking, by the time December rolled around Self had to try something.
Through his first seven games Tharpe averaged 6.6 points, 4.6 assists and 1.7 turnovers. It wasn't so much that Tharpe's play was hurting the Jayhawks as it was them needing someone who could get the offense into a rhythm.
Mason got his chance to start on December 7 in a loss to Colorado. On the final play of the game, Mason let his man get to the side of him and heave a game-winning three at the buzzer. Three nights later the Jayhawks committed 24 turnovers in a road loss to Florida with Mason starting again. Self returned to Tharpe the following game against New Mexico.
“That position in particular is a tricky one,” ESPN college basketball reporter Dana O'Neil said. “You're viewed as a leader and when you're not in there the obvious inference is that you're not leading.”
The worst part was that most of the other pieces were starting to excel. Andrew Wiggins displayed unconscious shooting at Florida, Joel Embiid was starting to force Tarik Black to the bench and Perry Ellis had scored in double-digits nearly every game. All the offense needed was a consistent point guard.
That's when Tharpe started to channel his inner Tyshawn and Elijah, in a good way.
“The combination of leading the team in position and personality had to come from somewhere,” O'Neil said. “The position he plays, coupled with the fact that comparatively he's older and has a little more experience I do think he's critical.”
Against New Mexico Tharpe put up 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Two games later against Toledo he scored 21 points with 11 rebounds and since conference play began Tharpe has averaged 13.2 points.
Without his performances, Kansas likely wouldn't have taken down four consecutive ranked teams - the first time any college basketball team has accomplished the feat since North Carolina in 1996-97. On Tuesday, Tharpe was named the Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week.
“I never thought Naadir Tharpe would win any national player of the week honors when we recruited him,” Self told the Scott Van Pelt Show on Wednesday. “What he did in those two tough games last week, he's been really good for us.”
But Tharpe isn't the only Kansas point guard to grow from his experiences. After Asika Booker nailed his long 3-pointer over Frank Mason to help Colorado beat Kansas, Mason was faced with the same situation against Oklahoma State.
Guarding a two-point lead with five seconds left, Mason stuck himself on Le'Bryan Nash as he dribbled down the court. With Mason taking away all his breathing room, Nash never had a chance to get a look at the rim, let alone take a shot.
“The biggest thing with both Naadir and Frank is that they're playing with much more confidence,” O'Neil said after attending Kansas' last two games. “They're more assertive, more aggressive, but not careless. I think they've found that line.”