Its been a week since Late Night in the Phog, so by now you’ve heard about the Bill Self as Ron Burgundy, the effortless glide from end to end, the hops and the hype from the arrival of Andrew Wiggins. I saw it all firsthand and this team looks good.
When I was there the part of the night that jumped out to me most to wasn’t any of that. I thought I’d seen it all wrong. The stories were all about the newcomers. Tarik Black looked marvelous on the block, like a man amongst boys, and Frank Mason and Wayne Selden looked confident and in control.
Yet none of that is what caught my eye. This is the most athletic Kansas team that I could recall before my eyes and none of the speed, elevation, or shooting, tripped my trigger. Was I really just over thinking everything? I was deep in despair until, late Sunday afternoon I saw Ron Burgundy selling me a Dodge Durango by telling me about the glove compartment (YouTube: Ron Burgundy Durango).
That’s when I realized that I needed to tell everyone about KU’s “glove compartment,” and, yes, it comes standard. What stood out to me? Naadir Tharpe changed his jersey number from 1 to 10. “But Sam” you’ll say “Joel Embiid hit a three and his shot looks so soft, and Andrew Wiggins looks down on the rim when he dunks, and Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor have had a year to improve, and Conner Frankamp is the best pure shooter KU has had since Jeff Boschee.”
I’ll stop you there, Jayhawk fans. I know you’re excited, but pause for a breath for Pete’s sake. Second, remember they pay the other coaches, too. Kentucky, Michigan State, and Duke, among others, have all reloaded as well. Third, in college basketball, just like in soccer, you can have all the talent in the world but if you don’t have a #10 you don’t have anything.
In that, I’m only half-kidding.
In soccer, the #10 is often worn by a team’s best all-around player: Pele, Ronaldinho, Wayne Rooney, Landon Donovan. At Kansas, recent #10’s have included Tyshawn Taylor and Kirk Hinrich. The face of the team often wears number 10. But more importantly #10 is used to signify a player’s role on their team as their firestarter, the hub, the playmaker. A team loaded with talent can struggle if there is no player to fill this role.
That’s who Naadir Tharpe has to be for this Kansas team to reach its full potential. It’s fun for the fans when the team is winning by 20-plus and making highlight-reel plays at both ends, cruising through early season cupcakes as the heralded freshman get their feet wet.
That is the script in most years for most top-tier college powerhouses, but according to ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan, KU has the toughest non-conference schedule in college basketball. With a neutral court game against Duke, a road game in Gainesville and an Allen Fieldhouse visit from Georgetown, it’s tough to disagree.
I’m willing to bet that in at least one of those games, KU will need a leader on the floor who makes the right decisions in key possessions down the stretch. KU will need a spark plug for that random Big 12 road game when a cellar dweller with no NBA talent picks that night as their personal national title game while the Jayhawks are ice cold.
Kansas will need a play maker all year who can help free up pure shooters with penetration, and get this team flowing smoothly on the break. When the games slow down the Jayhawks, they will need a player who makes the right plays in the pressure cooker that is the NCAA tournament. In short, KU needs Naadir Tharpe needs to not only wear #10, but be a true #10. Ultimately, their success depends on it.