Jeff Withey entered this season with great expectations after a breakthrough year in 2011-12. Withey…
No Doubt About It
During an interview conducted with Self for the upcoming issue of Jayhawk Illustrated, I again posed the question and wondered if the situation had rectified itself and the response was quick and emphatic, "It's Naadir (Tharpe). Period."
"If it wasn't Naadir I'd probably go with Travis. Anrio (Adams) is not ready for that yet," said Self referring to who would spell Johnson. "It's much easier for Anrio to play off the ball than it is on the ball. Nadir can do it. Nadir and Elijah are going to play together a lot."
The 5-11 Tharpe spent most of his freshmen season at KU playing limited minutes (175 total minutes). His opportunities came sparingly and when they did the Brewster Academy standout had trouble taking care of the basketball finishing the season with 21 assists and 22 turnovers. His confidence suffered and at times when he hit the court he looked afraid to make a mistake which naturally produced some untimely turnovers.
But Self's confidence in Tharpe grew as the season wore on and he watched his first year guard get better and better. In turn, Tharpe became more sure of his ability to be a key contributor for this basketball team.
"Oh it's back," said Self when asked about Tharpe's confidence level. "There's no hurdle to go over right now. He lost it (confidence) last year but I will tell you this - he had an NCAA Tournament that was great. He made a couple of big time plays against Purdue that kind of carried us in the first half I think he's got it back I really do."
Naadir appears to have built off that momentum and has continued to regain his swagger leading KU in assists during a 4-game stint in Europe this summer (17 assists to just 8 turnovers).
It didn't take much time for Tharpe to be thrust into a pressure situation. Against Southeast Missouri State in a tight game, Elijah Johnson picked up his fourth foul with over 12 minutes left on the clock. Tharpe filled in admirably scoring a career-high 10 points in 28 minutes of play. Tharpe keyed a critical run that took a 6-point lead and brought it comfortably to double-digits. Even more importantly, he took care of the basketball and ran the offense the way you have to in a tight game.
"I kind of figured once he got his fourth foul that I was going to have to go back in the game and be in the game for awhile so I tried to get my mind right once I went in and try to lead the team the best that I can," said Tharpe. "We all kind of pulled together as one to finish the game right."
And Johnson didn't head to the bench with his head down forgetting that he is unquestionably the leader of this KU team. Johnson offered words of encouragement for his teammate Tharpe knowing that the Jayhawks needed him against Southeast Missouri State and would going forward.
"Basically he told me it's finally your time to run the team and control it so just play your game and try to be as confident as you can while I'm out and that's what I tried to do the whole time to finish the game off," Tharpe said.
After Johnson left the game at the 12:10 mark KU finished the game on a 31-18 run, good enough for a 74-55 win in the first game of the season.
Once again, KU struggled a bit on the offensive end especially from three (2-21), but like many times during Self's successful career, the team was buoyed by terrific defense. For now there's no reason for Naadir or the rest of his KU teammates to worry about the saran wrap that appears to be on the rim for them, they are all confident the shots will fall.
"That's just basketball," stated Tharpe who went just 4-11 from the floor, including 1-6 from three. "Everybody has days where the ball doesn't go fall but nobody took any bad shots. We're going to make those shots as the year goes on as long as we keep on being confident enough to shoot them that's all that matters."
"Naadir's best play for us right now is that he can make a shot," said Self confidently. "Naadir is a good shooter. Statistically he hasn't shot it great but he's a good shooter."
Instead of praise for Tharpe there will likely be concerns about Johnson who scored just 4 points in 22 minutes fouling out with just over 4 minutes left. But remember, EJ spent 4 months after last season on the shelf due to knee surgery and he and the Jayhawks are just beginning to hit their stride.
If it takes KU and Johnson a little more time to click and operate on full throttle for now the coach and his team have full confidence in Tharpe running the show. But don't expect the coach to be TOTALLY satisfied with Tharpe's season-opening performance.
"He did some pretty good stuff but it's not where it needs to be but he'll get there," said Self.
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