For all the Kansas fans who have wondered what the team could be if anyone but Naadir Tharpe played point guard: One press release Thursday served as the welcome to be-careful-what-you-wish-for territory.
Tharpe will transfer away from the Jayhawks before his senior season to an undetermined school closer to his native Massachusetts and to be near to his daughter who has medical issues, according to statements released by the player and the school. Before that news, a reloaded national championship contender questioned the consistency it could get from its lead guard. Now Kansas will question who that lead guard is in the first place, and that's even more tenuous position for a program with designs on a run to at least the Final Four.
While it was Joel Embiid's balky back that kept him from this past year's postseason undermined the Jayhawks' potential for a title chase in March -- Kansas bowed out in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament and then lost to Stanford in the NCAA tournament's round of 32. -- it was Tharpe's uneven play that was identified as the most insidious factor all season long. He averaged 8.5 points and 5.0 assists on 43.6 percent shooting in 2013-14, with 37.7 percent efficiency from three-point range. In a lineup that featured future lottery picks in Andrew Wiggins and Embiid as well as productive outlets like Perry Ellis (13.5 points per game) and Wayne Selden, Jr. (9.7), Tharpe mostly just needed to be consistent and reliable.
But when he compiled a 23-point, four-assist night in a win against Iowa State, no one forgot the five-point, four-assist, three-turnover effort in an earlier loss to Villanova. There was a 21-point, six-assist outing to help down Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State in Lawrence but also a two-point, five-assist and three-turnover performance in a non-conference defeat by Florida. He had 19 points and five assists on 6-of-7 shooting in a victory over Oklahoma, but followed it with six points, five assists and six turnovers in a loss at Oklahoma State five days later.
Had the Jayhawks started peddling Dramamine at home games to combat such wild swings, no one would have flinched. As Tharpe's inconsistencies piled up, the frustrations did, too. It certainly didn't help his reputation when an inappropriate photo of Tharpe and a woman surfaced online after the season, an incident that earned a rebuke from head coach Bill Self, who said he was “extremely disappointed” with Tharpe.
So even after swapping Wiggins and Embiid for top 15 recruits Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander – and, if the rankings are right, thereby suffering little overall talent drop-off – point guard consistency and reliability again would define Kansas' chances at a championship next season. That hasn't changed. The identity of that point guard has, though, and the questions are amplified as a result.
Frank Mason and Connor Frankamp, both sophomores-to-be, are the options on hand. They combined for eight points and 2.7 assists per game in 2013-14, with Mason averaging 16.2 minutes a night as Tharpe's primary backup. Frankamp averaged just 8.3 minutes in 27 games, though he posted double-digit scoring efforts in both NCAA tournament outings.
Yet the challenge is not for Mason or Frankamp to merely make a significant leap from their first year to their second. The conclusion was that Tharpe's overall performance wasn't sufficient to push Kansas to a title. If that's indeed the case, Mason and Frankamp must improve enough to cover the distance between their level and Tharpe's, and then push even well beyond that.
Self might also import another candidate: Devonte Graham, Rivals.com's No. 36 recruit in the Class of 2014, was released from his letter of intent by Appalachian State and will now reportedly choose between N.C. State and Kansas. The more options, the better. Still, handing a national championship contender to a freshman point guard doesn't sound like it provides the Jayhawks the certainty they craved at the position.
Tharpe, meanwhile, will pursue his own personal stability. No one can blame him. His 2-year-old daughter, Amara, has battled health problems during his time in Lawrence. The strain evidently became too much for the Worcester, Mass., native. “My daughter has current medical issues that require weekly visits to her physician, as well as with a specialist,” Tharpe said in a statement. “At this juncture, I feel it is best to be closer to home where I can assist and support in any way.”
Said Self: “He's told me many times how much he misses his little girl and she's had some health issues that certainly made it difficult for him to be away from her for this extended period of time. She's doing very well now, but Naadir approached me after the season was over about him wanting to be closer to her. This is his decision to try and accomplish that.” Kansas has legitimate aims at Big 12 and national titles in 2014-15. Cynical fans might have claimed either was impossible unless Naadir Tharpe was no longer the point guard. They're now bound to find out how right or wrong they are, whether they like it or not.