LAWRENCE, Kan. — You can shoot and dunk and magic and Wiggins your way out of anything. Until March.
March doesn’t care about recruiting rankings. March doesn’t care about YouTube highlights. March is a results game, a guard’s game. If the point man fails, the head of the snake dies, and the party’s over. It’s the one hole in the wall you can’t patch or cover, no matter how hard you try.
In March 2012, Kansas point guard Tyshawn Taylor couldn’t hit the broad side of several barns, but he kept the ship moving anyway: 4.6 assists and 3.5 turnovers in six NCAA Tournament games. The Jayhawks went 5-1 and danced all the way to the national final.
In March 2013, KU point guard Elijah Johnson came off unsure and inconsistent, just as he had in the two months prior to that: 2.0 assists and 3.3 turnovers over three Bracketville tilts. And he saved the worst for last: zero dimes, one shot to a Michigan player’s crown jewels, five giveaways and the final, awful word — passing up what appeared to be a clear shot in the lane by kicking it back outside — in a two-point regional semifinal loss to the Wolverines.
Your serve, Naadir.
“What I learned is that you’re not going to play every game the best; you’re not going to play great,” noted Naadir Tharpe, the Jayhawks’ heir incumbent at the point. “You’re not going to do everything that’s going to be needed, but you always need to find a day to help out the team another way.”
Late Night in the Phog gets underway tonight, the unofficial lifting of the lid for a basketball school and a basketball town, Lawrence’s annual autumn celebration of the glorious winter to come.
It starts here. Where it ends, of course, might well be in the hands of Tharpe, the 5-foot-11 junior who averaged 5.5 points and 3.1 assists a year ago. For all the love and attention toward the phenomenon that is Andrew Wiggins; the granite arms of Tarik Black; the grace of Wayne Selden; the feet of Joel Embiid; and the uncanny range of Conner Frankamp, the universal truth remains:
The Jayhawks’ journey in March will go as far as their point guards can take them. If Johnson and Taylor taught us anything, it’s that.
“I think he sees that, and he wants to be the one to push us even farther,” guard Andrew White III said of Tharpe. “But I expect him to do some great things this year. I don’t see why we couldn’t go as far as we want with him running our team.”
Broad shoulders? Check. Thick skin? Short memory? Check and check. Good working relationship with coach Bill Self? Well …
“I wouldn’t call it tough,” Tharpe said. “Because (when) you’re a point guard, you’ve been playing point guard your whole life, so that you know no matter what happens on the court, everybody’s going to look back at you. So being a point guard, I’ve dealt with that for a long time.
“So it’s not tough playing for coach Self, because, you know, he brings you down, but he also always wants to bring you up at all times. He gives me confidence, all three years that I’ve been here, even when I wasn’t playing the most minutes. And for a coach to be able to do that to you, it’s hard for you not to be confident and want to go out there and make sure you do what’s needed for him.”
In a bizarre way, Tharpe is the axis point at Allen Fieldhouse, watching the rest of the roster flip around him. Last season, he was a pup on training wheels, surrounded by seven players who were juniors or seniors. This season, he’s a grizzled vet on a unit that includes seven true or redshirt freshmen.
“It started right at the beginning of the summer,” the Massachusetts native noted. “I kind of figured I was going to have to be the guy.
“At the end of any meeting that we had, it was always, ‘Na, make sure this happens. Na, make sure you get the guys together for the next meeting, make sure everybody’s there on time’ … because I’ve been here three years now, so I know everything that is about to happen before it does. So I’m just trying to help them out as much as I can.”
That experience means something, especially on a roster this green. Tharpe has 69 KU games on the resume, which helps. His quickness and fearlessness defies a slender, 170-pound frame; his acumen at the drive-and-kick could be deadly when paired with marksmen such as Frankamp and Brannen Greene.
But there are questions, too. How much tread is on Tharpe’s tires, considering that he has yet to play more than 19.4 minutes per contest? How will he handle the physicality of some of the bigger guards in the Big 12, most notably Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart? How well can he rally a young roster when the waters get choppy?
“I think he’s learned from those guys, because he’s seen two great (point) guards that have come before him,” White continued. “He’s learned that you have to talk. You have to be in guys’ ears on the sidelines. That’s just what leaders do. He’s going to be the quarterback of the team this year, so he knows a lot of expectations from Coach are going to be on him first, and that’s what the coach has said. And he’s going to take a lot of the team blame. A lot of the heat is going to be on his back.”
And the deeper you get into the campaign, the deeper the burn. Because March is also when legacies get written and cemented, often in blood.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com.