Russell Robinson is my version of Tony Yates on the current Kansas University basketball team.
Tony Yates? He's the heady, poised Air Force veteran who made his first postseason appearance in the NCAA Regional here in 1961 and quarterbacked Cincinnati to '61 and '62 college titles - beating Ohio State's Jerry Lucas-John Havlicek Buckeyes in both final games.
Tony almost got the Bearcats over the hump for a third straight championship in '63 except for a teammate's missed free throw which would have assured a victory over Loyola of Chicago. Yates later would be the head coach at Cincy. He was replaced in '89 by Kansas State's new heartthrob, Bob Huggins.
Tony had a low-key knack of surgically guiding his team to victory, the way KU's Robinson is doing so effectively, in a way that too often is overlooked, though not by coach Bill Self. Whatever you needed, Yates could do it and so can RussRob. He can't engineer three NCAA titles, but he can be the pathfinder who guides the Jayhawks to the throne in 2007 and 2008.
Yates faced huge demands as Cincy began its trophy quest here in '61. The Bearcats featured the incomparable Oscar Robertson in 1958-59-60 but never grabbed the brass ring. They reached here with 6-foot-4 and 6-2 forwards, Bob Wiesenhahn and Tom Thacker, a heavy-hipped, knock-kneed 6-9 center named Paul Hogue and unheralded Yates and Carl Bouldin as the guards. No way they could get to the finals; beating '60 college champ Ohio State was strictly Mission Impossible.
Cincinnati had a fevered fan following, a la Kansas at Las Vegas. After UC beat Texas Tech and Kansas State in the regional here, team spokesman Wiesenhahn, who looked more like a defensive tackle than a forward, promised the huge Allen Fieldhouse crowd that, "We'll get to Ohio State in Kansas City and we'll beat 'em." Tony Yates smiled, nodded assent, said nothing, then sparked Cincy to wins over Utah and Ohio State (70-65) in Kansas City.
Darned if the Bearcats didn't beat the Lucas-Havlicek Buckeyes again in 1962, 71-59, after lopping off UCLA, 88-69, in the national semifinals at Louisville. But for a key free throw, it would have been another win in '63 at Louisville.
2006-07 Nov. 30 Hoops presser
Yates had that same quiet confidence Robinson has gained the past two seasons at KU. RussRob outwardly is more demonstrative than the calm but deadly Yates. But if Kansas reaches the Final Four and prevails in 2007 and '08, which it certainly is capable of, Robinson will be a huge factor same as Yates for Cincinnati and K.C. Jones for San Francisco.
Now another "quiet man" on the KU roster has to grow more selfish and courageous and put his skills to firmer and fiercer use. That would be Brandon Rush, who is listed as a sophomore but who is 21 years old and needs to grow far more assertive. There have been too many times late last season and this year that he's had to be "carried" by more demonstrative and forceful performers such as Mario Chalmers, Julian Wright and Darrell Arthur. Showtime!
They're the kids, Rush is the older guy who must contribute more than he has, good as he has been at times. If he's an All-American and Big 12 player of the year, he needs to prove it conclusively, the way Wright has been doing. Brandon's too good to keep his alleged light hidden under a bushel.
Yet we can always depend on Russell Robinson, so steady, versatile, leaderly and, understandably, so dear to Bill Self's heart.