He’d say it all the time. When the shots weren’t falling, when the legs looked heavy, when his little brother needed a reminder.
Tishaun Jenkins would pull Naadir Tharpe, his youngest brother, to the side and say the same six words.
Shoot the ball to the ceiling.
“Just make sure it has a chance to go,” Tharpe says, sitting in the Kansas locker room at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. “The higher I get my arch, the better chance it has to go in.”
One day before No. 2 seed Kansas was set to open the NCAA Tournament against No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky at 3:10 p.m. on Friday, Tharpe was thinking about his brother. This is how it always is, of course.
When Tharpe’s father, Ronald, died of lung cancer in 2006, it was Tishaun who stepped in to serve as a father figure. When Tharpe needed somebody to talk to, Tishaun listened. When Tharpe needed somebody to push him, Tishaun did the shoving.
So when Tharpe returned home for Christmas in December, he knew he needed another talk with Tishaun.
His junior season had been erratic, and he was struggling to lead a young team. For two games in early November, he lost his starting spot to freshman Frank Mason.
The two brothers bonded over basketball again.
“He said: ‘As long as I have confidence in myself, and do as much as I can for the team, the dudes are going to follow,’” Tharpe says. “And it’s going to show.”
For the next two months, Tharpe’s confidence did show. Kansas won its 10th straight Big 12 title, and on most nights, Tharpe looked capable of running the Jayhawks’ youthful machine. But something happened during the first weeks of March. Kansas enters the tourney having lost three of five, and Tharpe is shooting just 21 percent while averaging 7.0 points during the stretch. It has appeared, at times, that Tharpe’s old confidence had been shaken.
“Even when I’m missing,” Tharpe says. “I never think about anything like that.”
The Jayhawks were without the services of freshman center Joel Embiid for the last four of those games, but as Kansas braces for its tournament opener, the Tharpe question comes into focus: Can Tharpe lead a young team deep into March?
“Good point guard play,” sophomore forward Jamari Traylor says, “that’s what you really need to get to the championship game.”
Traylor is Tharpe’s roommate and knows him better than anyone else on the team. And despite the recent struggles, Traylor believes Tharpe can rise to the moment in March.
“That’s just basketball,” Traylor says. “You’re going to have some good games, you’re going to have some bad games.”
Two years ago, Traylor and Tharpe both watched as senior Tyshawn Taylor drove the Jayhawks all the way to the NCAA title game in New Orleans. Tharpe was a little-used freshman; Traylor was a redshirt. They both saw the same things.
Taylor had struggled that season, too. During the NCAA Tournament, he couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn from three. But he was there it meant the most. The Jayhawks kept grinding, kept advancing.
“It starts off with the point guard,” Tharpe says, “so I got to be as aggressive as I can, defensively and offensively, and just gather the troops.”
Tharpe’s on-the-ball defense has been questioned this season — sometimes by his head coach, Bill Self. The coach has demanded much of his floor leader. On some teams, the point guard can settle into a role as a distributor. But Tharpe is also the most reliable three-point shooter in the starting lineup. If he’s not hitting outside shots, the numbers can be ugly from three-point range.
In Kansas’ 94-83 loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 semifinals, Tharpe didn’t attempt one three in 31 minutes. The Jayhawks were just four of 15 from three-point range.
“I just need to make sure — I’m not saying hunt for my shot — but look to score,” Tharpe says. “Because if I do that, it helps these other guys. It gives them a little break.”
At some point on Friday afternoon, as KU attempts to advance against Eastern Kentucky, Tharpe will catch the ball on the wing. With Embiid out of the lineup, the Jayhawks will need an offensive lift during a tourney run. So Tharpe will try to stay confident, remembering his brother’s words.
“Shoot the ball to the ceiling,” Tharpe says. “That’s one of the most (important) things I think about when I shoot it. Just make sure it has a chance to go.”