(Eds: With AP Photos.)
By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Sports Writer
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - The keys to the Kansas offense are being slowly handed to a sophomore point guard who hardly played last season, and whose performance this year has swung between maddening and marvelous.
Sometimes all in the span of a week.
Naadir Tharpe has gone from the also-ran bench guy playing garbage minutes to the guy getting the ball in the hands of Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey, the two best players for No. 14 Kansas, when the game is on the line. He's emerging as the next Tyshawn Taylor, the next Aaron Miles, the next Sherron Collins - the next guy to run the offense for one of the nation's marquee programs.
"We're playing four perimeter guys and he's one of the four, so he's got a pretty big role," Kansas coach Bill Self acknowledged. "Naadir has had a big role for us for the entire year, but certainly of late. He's played some big minutes lately."
Rarely has he been as marvelous as he was Monday night, when he had eight assists and one turnover in 27 minutes against No. 10 Kansas State. Tharpe also helped to shut down Rodney McGruder, the Wildcats' leading scorer, in an 83-62 rout that forged a tie for first place in the Big 12.
Then again, rarely has been as maddening as the previous week against TCU.
That's when Tharpe, oozing confidence, hurled up a career-high 15 shots. The trigger-happy sophomore only made two of them, and had just two assists with two turnovers, a big reason why the Jayhawks (20-4, 8-3) suffered a stunning defeat to the league's bottom-dwellers.
Still, his play since late December has provided a lift, and that begs the question: Could he not only hold the keys to the Kansas offense, but also the key to another deep March run?
"I feel like I'm starting to play a little better than I did before, earlier in the season," he said Thursday. "I guess if you want to say things are starting to click, you could put it that way. But I think a lot of it comes from my teammates and my coaches giving me confidence."
The confidence has come with increased minutes.
After playing a season-low 8 minutes against Oregon State in late November, he's played at least 15 minutes in every game. That includes 20 against American, when he dished out a career-best 12 assists without a turnover, and at least 22 minutes in each of the last three games.
"We need him to be more consistent, but coming off the bench, he brings a lot of energy," Withey said. "He's getting a lot better and that's what we need."
Especially while Elijah Johnson continues to struggle.
The senior moved to the point from shooting guard during the offseason, where he was supposed to take over for Taylor, who exhausted his eligibility. But the new role hasn't come naturally to Johnson, who has struggled with his shot, turnover problems and consistently getting the Jayhawks into their offense when they're in half-court sets.
Self said he remains confident that Johnson, one of his top outsider shooters, will eventually emerge from his slump, but even that may hinge on how well Tharpe continues to play.
If he can take over the point, Johnson can slide back to his more natural position.
"I don't think it's unusual that guys go through this. He's a far superior shooter than his stats show," Self said of Johnson, who is shooting a career-low 36.5 percent from the field.
"We need him to play at a high level that he's very capable of playing at, and he knows that, and he will," Self added. "I have total confidence in that."
Total confidence that Tharpe can assume some of the workload, too.
The sophomore from Worcester, Mass., was a four-star prospect coming out of New Hampshire's Brewster Academy, but he couldn't seem to get on the court last season. Part of it was because of the Jayhawks' veteran backcourt, but part of it was his own fault: Tharpe admits now that he wasn't quite ready for everything that comes with playing high-level college hoops.
"Thinking of what you need to do. That's probably the toughest," he said. "You come and you think you know the answers, and you think you know right and wrong, and after having Coach around and have him guide me, you realize you don't know what's going on.
"So learning is the most important thing."
The irony is that Tharpe may be at his best when he's not thinking - when he's reacting to whatever is happening on the floor. He has a knack for slicing into the lane and then finding the open player when defenses collapse, something he did so effectively against the Wildcats.
"He is fast," Self said. "He's clever, he's good with the ball, he has good vision and he can make a shot. He needs to be aggressive, drive it and let that set up everything else."
While his offense has started to develop, Self also has been pleased with Tharpe's growing tenacity on defense. He's been getting key minutes against the opponent's best perimeter players, and will get another shot on Saturday against Texas' Myck Kabongo.
It's heady stuff for a guy who hardly played last season, and perhaps that's why Tharpe is so quiet when he's surrounded by reporters. He's never been the center of attention since arriving in Lawrence, but that's slowing changing as he takes the wheel for the Jayhawks.
"He needs to be our pit bull," Withey said. "When he's doing that, it's really big."