Indianapolis – Before the start of the season, coach Richard Pitino addressed his Gophers with a message. However the players were picturing the upcoming season in their minds, he said then, was not the way it was going to go.
“I would say that is accurate,” Stephon Sharp said last week.
Most of this season’s surprises have been hard on the Gophers — a player dismissal, three suspensions, an eight-win season, a senior fracturing his foot on Senior Night — with the most recent exception being the story of Sharp, the freshman walk-on near the end of the bench, turned starting point guard, turned leading scorer. This last sliver of a chaotic season has been a big opportunity for the Bloomington native.
Through Feb. 23, Sharp had played in 11 of the team’s 27 games, logging only 39 minutes and scoring a total of four points. Then, guards Kevin Dorsey, Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer were suspended following the appearance of illicit videos on Dorsey’s social media accounts. That incident followed the dismissal of senior Carlos Morris for “conduct detrimental to the team” less than two weeks earlier.
With suddenly no guards remaining, Sharp’s role changed completely. The morning of the Illinois game on Feb. 28 — hours before the team announced the suspensions — Pitino told Sharp he would be starting. That night, Sharp doubled his yearlong floor time with another 39 minutes and scored 19 points after going 6-for-10 from the field and 4-for-6 from three-point range.
“I kind of got thrown into the fire,” Sharp said. “But I was just excited to play, and ready to go.”
Since then, Sharp has been one of the only bright spots on a team with only five scholarship players left. Although he’s taken an especially high volume of shots in the past two games — combining to go 10-for-30 — Sharp has averaged 16 points in the past three while adapting to a new position. He’ll continue this new, unexpected, full-throttle role Wednesday when the Gophers open Big Ten tournament play against Illinois in Indianapolis.
While Sharp never had played this many minutes at the collegiate level, he also hadn’t played point guard since fifth grade.
Pitino has held Sharp in high regard since he joined the team before the season.
“I see Steph playing,” he said then. “I don’t really look at him like a walk-on. I think he brings value.”
But even he was blown away by Sharp’s immediate impact.
“I think the Illinois game was remarkable just because he hadn’t played at all,” Pitino said. “To do what he did … kind of on the fly … that was pretty impressive.”
Son of a coach
The Gophers have only three scholarships open heading into next season, and they’re committed to recruits Amir Coffey, Eric Curry and Michael Hurt. Sharp only laughed when asked whether he was beginning a petition for a scholarship, saying he’s “OK” with whatever he can do to help the program. But in the event of another opening, Pitino said he would consider his standout walk-on.
“That’s really, really hypothetical,” he said. “But we always consider those things when we have available scholarships.”
Sharp credits his father, Darryl Sharp — Hampton University’s associate head coach — for his versatility and shooting. The elder Sharp was plenty hard on him growing up, constantly “in my ear all the time,” he said.
“Growing up, I didn’t always listen to him just because he was my dad and I never thought he had the answers,” Sharp said. “But as I got older, I started listening to him more, and it really helped me a lot, just from the standpoint of seeing the game a different way and working on my shot a lot too.”
After graduating from Hopkins, Sharp attended South Kent in Connecticut for a year of prep school. He had offers to play at Hampton and had interest from Hofstra as well as a couple of Ivy League schools. But Sharp declined all of the free rides for a chance to commit to his home-state school as a preferred walk-on.
“I was away at prep school and I got really homesick,” said Sharp, who plans to major in sports management. “Obviously the education was a huge piece in the puzzle for me. It was really a combination of both.”
Now, for better or for worse, he’s also the new face of a team that has been defined by its struggles. With five of the team’s top six scorers gone, Sharp has his moment in the spotlight, playing for something beyond this season.
“Coach just preaches every day to embrace the opportunity,” he said. “And that’s what I’m trying to do.”