ST. LOUIS -- There is a temptation to peg Thomas Robinson for a loner, to understand the Kansas junior's success as a function of tragedy and forced evolution. Part of it is visual: Robinson, a 20-year-old who averages 17.9 points and 11.8 rebounds a game, could be employed as LeBron James's body double. Andrea Hudy, the Jayhawks' strength and conditioning coach, attests that the 6-foot-9, 245-pounder, a projected top-five NBA Draft pick, can bench-press 300 pounds, clean 300, and parallel-squat close to 400.
Part of it is what can't be seen, too: many mornings, sometimes at 7 a.m., Robinson leaves for the practice court and is back before his roommate, guard Elijah Johnson, can pad into their living room, half-asleep. "T-Rob will already be in there, chilling," Johnson says. "I'll ask, 'What'd you do?' He goes, 'I just went and got some shots up real quick.' He gets something out of his time. He doesn't just sit around and let it pass him by."
How could he? It was last year, on Jan. 21, 2011, that Robinson's cellphone famously buzzed with a voice mail from his then-seven-year-old sister, Jayla, back home in Washington, D.C. A return call confirmed the worst: their mother, Lisa, had died late that night of an apparent heart attack. A single mom, Lisa was just 43. In the six weeks prior, the Robinson siblings had already lost their maternal grandmother and their maternal grandfather. Soon Kansas coaches, teammates and four teammates' mothers converged upon that living room in Robinson and Johnson's two-bedroom suite. The whole scene, Kansas coach Bill Self would say, "was the saddest thing I've ever seen in my life."
Talk to Robinson, however, and it turns out that so much heartbreak isn't where the story of this Final Four frontcourt -- maybe the best in the nation -- ought to begin. Yes, as Johnson puts it, Robinson is "a grown man now." But the evolution actually started years earlier in Lawrence, when a unanimous All-America was just an anonymous fourth-stringer. It started when the teammate who would appreciate Robinson most finally came to town.
He arrived at Kansas in January 2009, a 7-foot, 209-pound sapling without a winter jacket. Jeff Withey, an erstwhile volleyball player from San Diego, had been recruited by Jayhawks assistant Kurtis Townsend since he was a sophomore at Horizon High. But the center, who visited Lawrence for the team's annual Late Night in the Phog festivities in 2006, wound up first committing to Louisville before heading to Arizona. Only the abrupt resignation of Wildcats coach Lute Olson in October 2008 changed his mind a third time. Withey didn't play a minute for the Wildcats that fall and quickly transferred to Kansas before the spring semester -- lured, he says, by the prospect of tutelage under the Jayhawks' famed big man coach, Danny Manning.
But at Kansas, which has recently stolen the mantle from Georgetown as Big Man U, Withey immediately found himself buried. On visits to San Diego, Townsend had seen a bouncy prospect with an underdeveloped offensive repertoire who'd grown up spiking volleyballs on nearby Mission Beach. As a Jayhawk, Withey redshirted his first year, as was mandatory for a transfer, and then became the fifth-string big man the next season. Ahead of him then were 6-11 Cole Aldrich (who'd be drafted No. 11 overall in 2010); 6-9 Markieff Morris (No. 13 in 2011); Markieff's identical twin brother, Marcus (No. 14 in 2011); and Robinson, a 6-9, 215-pound freshman with a husky baritone voice.
Little about the team's pecking order was surprising. The first time Withey had seen Robinson was in the summer of 2009, when Robinson was an incoming freshman snaring rebounds and dominating Self's basketball camp. "I didn't know too much about Thomas," recalls Withey, who hadn't paid serious attention to basketball until he began to be recruited in ninth grade. "I was like, 'Dang, who is this guy?'"
The center found out soon enough. Every time the 2009-10 Jayhawks would split themselves up into two teams, whether it was for practice or a summer pickup game, the fourth-string Robinson always wanted to go up against Aldrich and the Morrii, and he always wanted the fifth-stringer by his side. Elijah Johnson still cannot help but chuckle before doing a pitch-perfect imitation of his roommate's booming, almost hubristic demand: "Gimme Jeff! Gimme Jeff!"
"I don't want to say he always wanted the weakling," Johnson says. "But he was trying to take Jeff under his wing and give him a little T-Rob."
The pair would fare miserably, at first, generally getting pulverized down low. In recorded game action, their inaugural college seasons were forgettable. Robinson and Withey played only 7.2 and 3.0 minutes a game, respectively, combining to average just 3.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 0.9 blocks for the season. Come late March, they both watched from the bench as Kansas, the NCAA tournament's top overall seed, got upset in the second round by Northern Iowa.
That June, even after Aldrich left early for the NBA, the bench-warming duo refused to separate. All along, Robinson kept shouting encouragement at the older but decidedly mild-mannered Withey, mainly trying to ratchet up the center's confidence: Jump hook! Keep getting your reps! Go hard! We need you! "Cole wasn't going to be here," explains Robinson, himself a late bloomer who had exactly one college offer entering the summer before his senior year at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H. "The twins weren't going to be here one day. I just tried to get Jeff to be more aggressive, man ... I knew that time was running out."
If Robinson's game has a flaw, his coaches say, it's that he's too aggressive. The power forward's motor -- that inner desire that allows him to grab rebounds by sheer force of will -- can spin out of control if left unchecked. Spectators recall practices where Jayhawks teammates have leapt out of Robinson's way rather than draw contact of any kind. "No matter what he does, he's going to do it hard," Johnson says. "He just goes, and goes, and goes. That's the most dangerous thing about him." The guard then poses a question, by way of further explanation: "Have you ever stood in front of a freight train?"
By his sophomore year, Robinson was getting bigger, surging past 230 pounds, the product of a team workout regimen that runs 45 weeks a year. But even as he popped up on NBA Draft boards as a projected first-rounder during that trying 2010-11 season, a frustrated Robinson remained stuck behind the Morrii -- two of his best friends -- ultimately putting up 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds in only 14.6 minutes a game. Withey, likewise, averaged just 2.3 points and 1.8 rebounds in 6.2 minutes.
As the duo continued to run the Kansas scout team, their rapport became self-evident. The Morrii still had the edge on them in games, certainly, and Robinson's instructions for Withey --
They were getting better, and yet bigger, together. "We had a great vibe," says Withey, whose increasing weight (now into the 220s) mirrored his climbing offensive initiative (centered around that jump hook). Adds Johnson, "If you bang with T-Rob all day, or just work out with him all day, you can't be scared."
The Jayhawks' season would end more horrifyingly than the previous one, though. First came a 71-61 Elite Eight loss to Virginia Commonwealth, an 11-point underdog. (Robinson played six minutes; Withey, zero.) Then, less than three weeks after that, five of the six players who'd played over 20 minutes a game last year -- everyone except Tyshawn Taylor -- were gone. Out were starting guards Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar, lost to graduation. The Morris twins and super-freshman guard Josh Selby all left early to enter the NBA Draft. With the individuals responsible for a total 65.4 percent of the Jayhawks' points gone, a rare rebuilding year seemed under way.
Self had always won in Lawrence with two NBA prospects down low, a long lineage dating back to Wayne Simien in 2001. Of the power forwards and centers who at least started part-time in that span, only two of 10 went undrafted. Who could possibly step up alongside Robinson now?
"Everybody talks about Thomas, which they should," a victorious Self said while standing in a hallway in the bowels of the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday night. "But people in our program know that Jeff is our anchor."
The former sapling has averaged 24.4 minutes, 9.2 points, 6.2 boards and 3.2 blocks a game this season, thrust into a starting role at last. And these two tournament wins last weekend are Withey's masterpieces.
In the 80-67 win against the Tar Heels, and projected first-rounders Tyler Zeller (7-foot) and John Henson (6-11), Withey went 5-of-5 from the field -- and 5-of-6 from the line -- for 15 points while also grabbing eight rebounds and blocking three shots. Naturally, his final two rejections, with 2:03 and 1:33 remaining, not only saved the game but also came with four fouls.
Two nights earlier, in beating dangerous N.C. State, 60-57, it was a different kind of dominance. Withey, who finished with eight points and five boards, swatted a staggering 10 shots and altered countless others, reducing the paint to a no-fly zone. Withey's last block sealed a new single-season school record for rejections, eclipsing Aldrich's 125 by one. Wolfpack big man C.J. Leslie, Kansas guard Conner Teahan said afterward, "looked a little surprised" at Withey's authority down low. As former Wolfpack star Julius Hodge tweeted, "Whoever knew Whithey [sic] could block shots like that??"
The answer to Hodge's question, of course, notched a combined 36 points and 24 rebounds last weekend himself. And yet all this success is old news to the teammates and coaches who've watched Robinson's bond with Withey evolve over the last three years. At practices this season, in fact, the tandem has been forced to split up for the first time since they've both been at Kansas. "We don't have the twins, so we can't be on the same team," says Robinson. "I have to challenge Jeff."
But not right now. It's still Sunday night, and awash in the glow of their coach's unlikeliest Final Four run, an ecstatic Robinson climbs onto a cart in the Edward Jones Dome hallway. He seems ready to speed off to the team's last news conference, and then onto New Orleans. As Withey plops down next to him, a strand of the net dangling from the center's celebratory cap, a reporter approaches with a simple question: "Thomas, how do you feel about your teammate?"
"Like a proud daddy," the 20-year-old says, grinning from ear to ear. And then he slings his arm around Withey's shoulders, keeping family firmly by his side.