Big guys dwarfed by the little guy’s shadow. Jimmy Cagney, flanked by hulking quiet guys, called the shots in the old black-and-white gangster films. Joe Pesci, shortest guy in the room, was the last guy to whom you would want to speak for fear he would misinterpret a seemingly harmless word in “GoodFellas.”
In basketball, as on the big screen, tall men always seem to look down to the little guy to show them the way.
It’s no different with Kansas University’s fifth-ranked basketball squad, a tight group already, according to one of its many talented newcomers.
“We’re always together,” freshman guard Wayne Selden said. “You’ll never catch anybody, unless they’re sleeping in their room, by themselves without anybody on the team. When I came on my visit, that’s what I felt, and that’s why I came here.”
Naadir Tharpe was his host for that visit, and Selden has been following his lead ever since.
“I played against him in high school,” Selden said. “He was the same as he is now: vocal and just ran the show, definitely ran the show in high school. He’s definitely the MVP, the leader. We need that because we’re so young.”
Kansas coach Bill Self is happy to have the 5-foot-11 junior from Worcester, Mass., after he served a one-game suspension for playing in a summer-league game in Chicago.
“I’ve said all along Naadir’s not our most talented guy, but he’s been our most valuable player since we’ve started practicing,” Self said.
Tharpe will need to secure the ball and get it into the right hands to give KU a chance of pulling off what would have to be considered at least a mini-upset Tuesday against Duke in Chicago’s United Center. His opposite number, 6-1 senior Quinn Cook, had 21 points, eight assists and no turnovers in the Blue Devils’ season-opening 111-77 rout of Davidson. Cook made seven of nine shots and three of five three-pointers.
“He’s a good point guard,” Tharpe said. “I played against him some as a kid in (AAU). We always went at it. He’s a friend of mind, but not on Tuesday.”
Splitting point-guard duties with Elijah Johnson last season, Tharpe averaged 5.5 points and 3.1 assists in 19.4 minutes per game. His three-point shot looked pure, but only one-third of them went in. He shot .886 from the line, a touch that should come in handy in the year of the whistle.
“Defending the perimeter,” Tharpe said of the key to Tuesday’s game. “They are going to want to drive it at us, especially with the new rules. We have to make sure we don’t get into foul trouble.”
The more frequent whistles figure in how he’ll play at the other end as well.
“Coach has been getting after me in practice to drive the ball and be aggressive,” Tharpe said.
He’ll lead with his chin and won’t be looking to duck.