If 'Waco Tharpe' shows up for KU in March, the Jayhawks could put another ring on Bill Self's finger
FEB 04, 2014 11:20p ET
Our conversation had turned to Kansas, and the Big 12 broadcaster -- a smart man, a no-nonsense type, and a hell of a Big 12 player himself, back in the day -- said this when asked about Jayhawks center Joel Embiid and the mighty KU front line:
"He can have his 14 (points) and 11 (rebounds)," the analyst noted. Then he paused.
"What I don't want is for him to finish with five or six assists."
And that, boys and girls, is the power of Naadir Tharpe.
That's what's going to give Big 12 teams nightmares down the stretch, as the dog days of February drag on and on, week after week, blizzard after blizzard.
That's what's going to give the Jayhawks staying power in Bracketville, potentially, long after most of the bluebloods have gone home for the spring.
As coach Bill Self often (and rightly) puts it, the season is made up of three phases -- non-conference, league play, postseason tournaments. But in the places where it matters, where it really, really matters, the third part is usually the only one that sticks, the one that separates banners-in-the-ceiling good from the etched-in-stone, immortal elite. Kansas has gotten so dang good at the second part the past decade -- we're talking nine straight Big 12 solo or shared titles, and they're back in the catbird seat for number 10 after a 69-52 throttling of Baylor in Waco on Tuesday night -- that we're never quite sure what to make of the third part, the March part.
Andrew Wiggins, The Chosen One, The Second Coming, will be up-and-down, the fate of most freshmen. Ditto Wayne Selden. Ditto Joel Embiid, although even his bad nights -- the 7-footer from Cameroon accounted for five points, seven boards and three turnovers Tuesday -- have their memorable moments.
The long-term fate, the third-part fate, the March fate, is more likely down to the veterans. Down to guys such as sophomore forward Perry Ellis (14 points, 10 rebounds), who does so much good and gets so precious little ink. To the Jamari Traylors and Tarik Blacks of the world, who bring enough energy and power off the bench to light up a city block (10 combined points, 12 combined boards).
Most of all, though, it's probably down to Tharpe.
If Waco Tharpe -- 9-for-14 from the floor, four-of-six on treys, 22 points, four assists -- shows up in Bracketville, KU is going to be one rhymes-with-stitch of an out in March. Period. Full stop.
"He didn't take a lot of shots," Self told KUSports.com after the game, "but they were all good."
And on a night they needed the help, too, in a hostile environment. Three minutes into the second half, Wiggins, Embiid and Selden were a combined 1-for-8 from the floor with three points among them.
"Andrew, Wayne and (Embiid) didn't really give us much in the first half," Self told reporters, "but we had some guys really step up."
The Jayhawks (17-5, 8-1 Big 12) ended the first period on a 10-2 run, capped by a shot that might get, oh, a few thousand quiet clicks before the end of the week: Wiggins forced a Cory Jefferson turnover under the Bears' hoop with three seconds left, ran to the "U" on the "BU" logo at mid-court, and let go a desperation heave from about 40 feet out. Swish.
Ah, Baylor. Don't you ever change.
"We knew we had to come out with some fire," Tharpe told KUSports.com. "And that's what we did."
KU played like it had been embarrassed in Austin (which it had) and fought like Self had challenged its manhood every 45 seconds (which he probably did). Once the foot got on to the Bears' collective throats, the Baby Jays never let up. Down five, 49-44, the hosts had two separate trips to the line and went 0-for-3, coming away with nothing. The next time down, Wiggins hit a 3 to push the lead to eight, then soared ahead on a runout with a two-handed slam to make it 54-44 with 8:54 left in the contest. That started a run that got to 11-3, then 20-7, as the game ran away from the Bears like a horse-drawn carriage down a slippery slope.
Which is funny, considering that Baylor (14-8, 2-7 Big 12) had the most to lose, returning home on the backs of five defeats over its last six contests. Tuesday night was the fifth salvo of a seven-game stretch that includes four tests on the road and a pair with the Jayhawks. If The Fighting Drews want to make an impression, as the saying goes, it's time to get off the proverbial pot. Well past time, now that you mention it.
For the Jayhawks, meanwhile, it's the same as it ever was, the eighth league win in nine Big 12 tilts and proof that Saturday's speed-bump loss at Texas was more of a blip than a trend. After getting manhandled physically by the Longhorns, the most egregious of sins in Self's eyes, KU wasted no time getting after it in Waco, outrebounding Baylor -- one of the few league rosters that can match up size-wise with the Jayhawks -- by a whopping margin of 14 and limiting the front-line trio of forwards Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers and center Isaiah Austin to a combined 9-for-26 shooting night and 15 boards -- six below their aggregate per-game average.
"They say defense travels (well)," Self told reporters, "and it certainly did (Tuesday)."
Experience travels well, too. Tuesday was the 10th time this season Tharpe has made more than one 3-pointer in a tilt; the Jayhawks have won nine of those contests. As to where Tharpe fits best into the backcourt equation -- point man? off-guard? -- long-term is a fair question, given freshman Frank Mason's quicks and potential. But for Self, right now, it's the best kind of problem to have.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.