KU Mailbag: Naadir Tharpe's role, falling football attendance and the Big 12 losing streak

10/18/2013 11:05 AM

10/18/2013 11:05 AM

Full weekend for Kansas sports here in Lawrence. The KU football team, 2-3, plays host to No. 18 Oklahoma at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. And a few hours before that, the Kansas basketball team will conduct an open scrimmage at 9:45 a.m. in Allen Fieldhouse.

Two of the

top senior recruits in the country will be on campus, which will provide a nice lead-in for football, where a former blue-chip recruit from Wichita

— Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell — will make his first start in his home state.

If that’s not enough, the Kansas volleyball team, ranked 23rd in the country, will play West Virginia at 5:30 p.m. in Morgantown, W.Va. The volleyball is 15-4 and 5-1 in the Big 12, with its only loss coming against defending national champion Texas.

And with that, let’s get to our weekly batch of tweets and emails:

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“IF Naadir (Tharpe) plays this year even half as well as he did during his two-three game hot stretch last year, I think we're the best team in the country. There, I said it.” — Emailer Scott Paradise, Atlanta

This email came in on Thursday, after Kansas was tabbed at No. 6 in the preseason coaches poll. For a Kansas team that lost all five starters, the No. 6 ranking is probably about right — at least, for the moment.

Louisville returns a handful of players from its NCAA title team — although it did lose forward Chane Behanan indefinitely on Thursday. Michigan State returns talent and experience. And Duke adds Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood and freshman star Jabari Parker to a solid crew of returners. Arizona should also be the most talented team out west, adding top-five recruit Aaron Gordon to a frontcourt that already has talented big-men Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski.

If there’s one question about the poll, it could be why the voters/coaches seemed confident anointing a young Kentucky squad as the No. 1 team in the country — while seemingly docking Kansas for the same thing. Perhaps they just showed more belief in Kentucky’s returners (sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein) and freshmen class, which features a record six McDonald’s All-Americans.

But let’s get back to initial point — the importance of Naadir Tharpe.

For KU coach Bill Self, he could be KU’s most important player.

“I need Naadir to be our most valuable player,” Self said last week, while in Kansas City for a Coaches vs. Cancer event. “Now I didn’t say best player; but he needs to be the guy that, regardless of the situation, it’s hard for us to play without him.”

It’s still the middle of October, but all signs point to freshmen Wayne Selden and Andrew Wiggins starting on the wing, and sophomore power forward Perry Ellis sliding into a leading role at power forward. Transfer Tarik Black appears slated to keep the center position warm until freshman center Joel Embiid is deemed ready.

That leaves Tharpe to push the right buttons at the point-guard spot.

A couple areas that will be critical: Decision-making, shot-selection and his assist-to-turnover ratio. Last year, as a sophomore, Tharpe shot just 34.3 percent from the floor and had an assist-to-turnover that was close to three-to-one. Some better decision-making on offense could lift his shooting percentage, and he’ll also need to show he can be the Jayhawks’ primary ball-handler against teams that really pressure. That was an area, you might remember, where Elijah Johnson really struggled at times last year.

“(Naadir is) by far — by far — the best passer, as far as creating shots for others, of anybody we’ve had in recent memory,” Self said. “And we’ve got to figure out a way where he can get to the paint.”

A worthy question, especially after Kansas opened the Big 12 season with losses against Texas Tech and TCU. That’s 23 straight Big 12 losses — and 34 losses in 35 Big 12 games.

Charlie Weis still hasn’t won a Big 12 game. And from where it stands now, it’s hard to see KU picking up a Big 12 victory over the next four weeks. Maybe, but it would be a sizable upset.

After this Saturday’s matchup with Oklahoma, KU plays host to No. 12 Baylor and travels to Texas and Oklahoma State. But in the big-picture, things probably aren’t as grim as they appear. Kansas still has home games against West Virginia and Kansas State … and a road game at Iowa State. The key will be staying healthy and not packing it in if KU falls to 2-7 over the next four weeks.

We’ll go ahead and say the best chance could come in a home game against West Virginia on Nov. 16.

Aside from a home victory against Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers have looked pretty mortal. They lost 37-0 at Maryland and were drubbed 73-42 at Baylor. If defense continues to be dependable, Kansas should be in a handful of games over the season’s final two months. Of course, to win any game, the Kansas offense is going to have to make some progress, too.

Yeah, we’ve been getting a lot of this in the last couple days. KU football attendance is down a little bit this year, averaging just less than 40,000 through three home games. But if we can answer the question literally for a second, the football attendance will still likely at least double whatever they get at the basketball scrimmage, which of course, will be capped at 16,300.

Might be wrong, but I expect somewhere between 11,000 or 12,000 at the scrimmage, which is still an insane number for a basketball practice on a Saturday morning. (Of course, there also is a bit of a novelty in KU opening up a practice to the public, and Andrew Wiggins will be there, so maybe it’ll actually be close to full. We’ll see…)

• #Mailbag music pick of the week:

“Magpie and The Dandelion”

— The Avett Brothers

New album out from the Avetts this week. We recommend

“Open Ended Life”

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