Four starters, including two NBA lottery picks, gone. Not a McDonald’s All-American on the roster. The two recruits who likely would have earned the most minutes among freshmen declared academically ineligible for the season. Two rotation players who arrived at school as walk-ons.
Coach Bill Self’s ninth Kansas University basketball team had all that going against it and somehow less than three weeks shy of the Jan. 4 Big 12 opener against Kansas State in Allen Fieldhouse is ranked No. 12 in the nation. The Jayhawks can’t be counted out of any conversation about Big 12 title contenders and have a 7-2 record with the only losses coming on neutral courts against Kentucky and Duke, now ranked third and seventh in the country.
How is this possible?
Certainly, the improved games of junior center Jeff Withey and fifth-year senior sharp-shooter Conner Teahan have played a part in Kansas not yet getting exposed for lack of depth. Yet, the main reason Kansas has hung tough so far has more to do with the “main course,” as Thomas Robinson was described by his coach.
“He’s been the icing, so to speak,” Self said before the season. “He’s been the dessert. Now he has to be the main course.”
Robinson has moved from reserve to focal point so smoothly that it has felt as if it were a given from a player who last season averaged 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds in 14.6 minutes per game.
Robinson knew in order to give a depth-challenged team a shot at remaining high in the rankings he would need to reduce his fouls and attain a level of conditioning high enough to sustain his high-energy style for 30-plus minutes. So far, so impressive. As a freshman, Robinson averaged 7.3 personal fouls per 40 minutes, 5.6 as a sophomore and 3.5 so far this season. He’s averaging 31.6 minutes a game, second only to Tyshawn Taylor (32.6 overall, 34.5 in two games playing with a torn meniscus and sprained ACL).
Robinson also needed to do a better job of cashing in on free-throw opportunities. Again, he has met the challenge. He clanked at a .395 success rate from the line as a freshman, improved to .510 as a sophomore and is shooting .714 nine games into this season.
A testament to his conditioning, Robinson tends to do some of his best work in the final minutes of games. In earning National Player of the Week honors from the United States Basketball Writers Association last week, Robinson scored six of his game-high 26 points in the final 5:17 of an eight-point victory against Long Beach State. He followed that by turning nine field-goal attempts and eight free-throw attempts into 21 points, 10 coming in the final 3:54 of an 11-point victory against No. 2 Ohio State, a tough out even with star sophomore center Jared Sullinger sidelined.
On paper, Baylor still looks as if it shapes up as the favorite to win the conference title, with Kansas and Missouri strong contenders. Again on paper, Baylor’s Perry Jones III looks like the strongest contender for Big 12 Player of the Year honors. Then again, the game’s played on hardwood by sweating men under bright lights. Robinson has a shot to become KU’s sixth post player to win the award Raef LaFrentz won twice.