By Rustin Dodd
One day after No. 5 Kansas clinched a share of its 10th straight Big 12 title, The Bonus returns with three takeaways from the Jayhawks’ 83-75 victory over Oklahoma.
Yes, Naadir Tharpe says. He’s heard it.
Sometimes, he’ll stumble upon the critical shrapnel on Twitter. Sometimes he’ll get a text message or call from his high school coach, Jason Smith of Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.
“Kansas fans,” Tharpe recalls Smith saying. “They try to kill you, Naa.”
Maybe it’s a bad turnover at an inopportune time. Maybe it’s a defensive breakdown. But usually — well, almost always — it’s his shot-selection. Last season, while serving as Kansas’ backup point guard, Tharpe had a tendency to fire up an off-balance jumper early in possessions. He was the seventh-leading scorer on a KU team that basically played seven players. But his shot selection often suggested the confidence of Ray Allen.
So Kansas fans would joke about the #NaadirTharpeHeatCheck, or they would question a step-back 18-footer with 29 seconds left on the shot clock, and Tharpe would just try to roll with it.
“I just laugh at it,” Tharpe says.
The truth is, Tharpe says, he doesn’t know how to play any other way. When he was a point guard at Brewster, one of the top prep schools in the country, the roster was loaded with future pros. He played alongside Thomas Robinson and Syracuse standout C.J. Fair. Iowa State senior star Melvin Ejim came off the bench. And yet, Tharpe was never shy about taking the big shot.
This goes back a ways, Tharpe says. When he was growing up in Worcester, Mass., Tharpe’s older brother and mentor, Tishaun Jenkins, used to pound the following point home.
“If you can’t take making that shot and everybody loving you — and you can’t take missing a shot and everybody hating you — you shouldn’t be playing this game.”
So it was on Monday night. No. 8 Kansas trailed Oklahoma 59-56 with 9:18 left. The Jayhawks were in danger of suffering their second home loss of the season. And Tharpe rose to the moment, finishing with 14 points and two assists in the final nine minutes as KU clinched its 10th straight Big 12 championship
“He closed the game the way good players close games,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “The way point guards close games. All the teams that have a chance to win, or have great seasons, they all have guys that can close.”
In his junior season, Tharpe is getting closer to becoming that guy. Let’s take a look at one stretch in particular. The Jayhawks had taken a 74-68 lead after a three-pointer from Andrew Wiggins with 2:45 to play. But on two consecutive possessions, Oklahoma challenged Tharpe to make a play — and Self gave Tharpe the freedom to make it.
On the first possession, with more than 1:52 left, Oklahoma shaded two guys on Joel Embiid and extended the defense on Wiggins on the wing.
The lane wasn’t totally open, but the Sooners’ defense was extended enough. All Tharpe needed to do was get his shoulders past one defender and the help-side defenders were too afraid to leave Perry Ellis or Embiid. Tharpe pulled up in the lane and hit a short jumper.
The next possession was even more open.
With more than a minute left, and the lead now just at 76-71 after an Oklahoma three, the Jayhawks’ other four players flattened out along the baseline. Tharpe beat his man off the dribble, and once again, the help was late. Of course, it’s tough to leave Embiid or Ellis alone on the block. So Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger picked his poison. And Tharpe carried the Jayhawks to a victory.
“When you don’t run offense,” Self said, “and you just put the ball in his hands and say ‘Go make a play’, that’s what good teams do. And that’s how you have to score in the NCAA Tournament a lot of times.”
2. Jamari Traylor, offensive weapon. We don’t often think about Traylor’s offensive prowess, and for good reason. A redshirt sophomore forward, Traylor has taken just 58 shots this season. The Jayhawks almost never play through him on the post. But Traylor, who is playing 15.1 minutes per game, might be on his way to becoming the most efficient part-time player of Self’s tenure.
After going two for two on Monday against Oklahoma, Traylor is shooting 74 percent on the season. He’s been even better in Big 12 play, hitting 28 of 38 (78 percent). No player in Self’s tenure has ever shot 70 percent from the floor while shooting more than 75 shots. Traylor could be the first.
For comparison: Mark Randall holds the KU record for field-goal percentage in a season (minimum 175 shots). He hit 64.6 percent in 1989. KU freshman Joel Embiid (62.4 percent) has an outside chance at that mark.
3 Wayne Selden’s future. In the moments after Monday’s game, Self was asked freshman Wayne Selden Jr.’s leadership skills. Self began to answer the question, suggesting Selden could be one of his best leaders at Kansas … but then he stopped.
“Who knows how long these kids stay in school,” Self said. “But he’ll be one of the better leaders we’ve had at KU if he’s in school long enough, because he gets it. He gets it.”
While Embiid and Wiggins will be projected lottery picks in this summer’s NBA Draft, Selden’s future could be a little more cloudy. In some mock drafts, he’s projected as a late first-round pick. For now, it appears Self doesn’t want to publically presume that Selden will be back at Kansas next year. But if he sticks around, Self says, he has the tools to grow into one of his best leaders.
“Wayne’s not scared of his voice,” Self said.