April 01, 2012

NEW ORLEANS — By the second game of his first season as Kansas’ No. 1 offensive option, Thomas Robinson had already failed to live up to his own expectations. Actually, in his words: “I was disgusted with myself.”

The Jayhawks’ 6-foot-10 junior power forward had been picked as a preseason All-American, but at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15, Kentucky held him to 11 points by smothering him with double- and triple-teams in the post. He earned just one trip to the free-throw line before fouling out in 27 minutes of a 75-65 loss, and left the Garden fuming, barely answering any questions outside KU’s locker room. He was appalled that the Wildcats’ band of underclassmen had “bullied” KU on national television.

“It was my first big test on a big stage, and I didn’t handle it well,” Robinson recalled late on Saturday night. “I took the traps bad; my mentality was as if I was out there by myself.”

To see Robinson here at the Final Four, radiating positive energy after the Jayhawks’ win over Ohio State, in which he scored a team-high 19 points to set up a title-game rematch with Kentucky, is to see a fully formed power forward. Buckeyes big man Jared Sullinger, an All-American in his own right, called Robinson “the national player of the year” in the lead-up to Saturday’s game; Robinson not-so-humbly said he agreed, and then backed it up by leading KU’s comeback from a 13-point deficit to win 64-62.

To see Robinson in November was to see a player whose raw physical abilities justified the hype (he had dominated summer sneaker-camp pickup games to the extent that he was being viewed as a lottery pick) and whose raging, internal fire suggested that he had takeover potential (as a sophomore, he had lost both of his maternal grandparents and his mother in a one-month span, and rather than shutting down, he dealt with his grief by doubling his workout load in the offseason). Robinson spent two years coming off Kansas’ bench, behind NBA-bound Cole Aldrich and then the Morris twins, and 2011-12 was expected to be his breakout year. But it took Kentucky bullying Robinson to make him face the truth: That if he wanted to be the man, he would have to handle the defensive attention that came with it.

He retreated to the film room, studying enough clips, he said, “to make sure that it wouldn’t happen again.” Robinson expected to be trapped as a junior, but had never experienced anything like what Kentucky’s fearsome front line did to him. Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis, who had seven blocks in that game, alternated as his primary defender, and the Wildcats ran big-to-big double-teams on him in the post, sometimes even dropping down a third player from the wing to take away all of his dribble-and-spin options. Robinson worked with assistant coach Danny Manning to devise ways to counteract double-teams — including retreat dribbles and fakes that could freeze traps and set up scoring chances, either for him or left-open teammates.

“Most of all,” Robinson said, “I learned that if you know the double is coming, and you can be patient*, it’ll work out.”

(* There’s a noticeable difference in Robinson’s low-post savvy from November to March. In the video below, two of the clips that Robinson studied — and stewed over — from the Kentucky game are spliced with footage from the Final Four. On the Jayhawks’ first possession against Ohio State, all it takes is Aaron Craft lurking near the post to get Robinson to flip the ball back out and reset the play into a pick-and-pop, which results in him getting an open jumper from the right elbow.)

Impatient vs. Patient Thomas

When Robinson and the Jayhawks face Kentucky — unstoppable, overwhelming-you-with-talent Kentucky — on Monday night, the nation will see two teams with widely different views on patience. The Wildcats are the most impatient team in America, not in their style of play, but in the way that they’re led by two freshmen, Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who took college by storm, were in the starting lineup from Day 1, and fully expect to win a national title before jumping to the NBA Draft, where they could very well be the Nos. 1 and 2 picks in June. Coach John Calipari knew there would be no long-term nurturing process with these phenoms. Now is their one and only chance to grab an NCAA championship.

Kansas had a slower build-up to this moment. Its center, Jeff Withey, who played a huge role in holding Sullinger to 13 points on 5-of-19 shooting, first enrolled at Arizona before transferring to Kansas, where he weathered injuries and finally broke out as a junior. Its point guard, Tyshawn Taylor, has been starting since his freshman year in 2008-09, but had never been entrusted with a true leadership role until now, as a senior. And Robinson is one of modern college basketball’s great anomalies — a player of the year contender who didn’t crack his team’s starting lineup until his third season. While Davis immediately grabbed the spotlight at Kentucky, Robinson averaged just 7.2 minutes per game as a freshman.

Reserve freshman guard Naadir Tharpe played with Robinson for one season at Brewster Academy, a New Hampshire prep school, in 2008-09. Tharpe would talk on the phone with Robinson the following year, when he was frustrated with being buried on the bench in Lawrence. “He didn’t know if Kansas was the right decision for him,” Tharpe said. “But I told him, ‘You wanted to go to a major program, and that’s how it is. You’re not going to get anything easy.’”

And so Robinson bided his time until this year, when Kansas’ frontcourt opened up after Marcus and Markieff Morris declared for the NBA Draft as juniors. But this summer, Taylor and Robinson openly wondered if their shot at a national title had passed; KU had been a talent-rich No. 1 seed in ’09-10 and ’10-11, but was upset in the NCAAs by Northern Iowa and VCU. Taylor told T-Rob, “We’re never going to get on teams like that again.” They would have to make do in ’11-12 with a shallow, seven-man rotation and a crew of former bit players being thrust into major roles — and against the odds, they won an eighth straight Big 12 title and got the school back to its first Final Four since winning the 2008 national title.

It would not have happened if Robinson played the post as if, in the Kentucky game, he was out there by himself. Against Ohio State, it was the previously unsung Jayhawks — Withey (seven blocks), Elijah Johnson (13 points) and Travis Releford (15 points) — who made critical, game-saving plays down the stretch. Taylor, like a senior leader should, calmly knocked down clutch free throws. Kansas has gained such trust in its supporting cast, assistant coach Kurtis Townsend said, “That we welcome the [double-teams on Robinson]. We just throw it out and let our guards drive at close-outs.”

Kansas has come a long way since November, but so has Kentucky, which grew up on the fly, managed not to develop any ego issues among its crew of draft hopefuls, emerged as the nation’s No. 1 team by December, and never gave up that title. When the two teams met in New York, no one realized that Robinson (who went on to average 17.9 points and 11.8 rebounds) and Davis would be the top two candidates for the Wooden and Naismith Awards. That race was still expected to be between Sullinger and North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes.

But seasons do not always go how we expect. Kansas did not believe, back then, that it could reach a national title game, and no one expected Davis to be this transcendent, this awe-inspiring. He had 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks against Louisville on Saturday. His game-changing abilities had Rick Pitino comparing him to Bill Russell. Davis’ lob dunks — in particular the one where Kidd-Gilchrist’s pass was tipped in mid-air, and Davis still managed to reach back and execute a one-handed, righty slam — are the signature highlights from New Orleans. Robinson has to grind for all his baskets, but Davis is on such a different athletic plane that his points come effortlessly.

Robinson was not willing to say much after that loss to Kentucky. He tersely answered three or four questions before heading toward the team bus outside Madison Square Garden. One of them was if there was anyone else like Davis in college basketball. “No,” Robinson said. “Not at all.”

As the season turns to April, that statement holds true. There is no one like Anthony Davis. And no one may be able to counteract the force that is Davis. But no college superstar has paid his dues like Robinson has. No star has endured what he has endured, and channeled it into a season like this one. Thomas Robinson will not let himself get bullied again. “Second chances,” he said on Saturday, “are always the best.”

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