Jayhawks play with heavy hearts

The first loss in 19 games this season and in the past 70 games in Allen Fieldhouse didn’t have anything to do with why the three Kansas University basketball players who attended Saturday’s postgame interview session had difficulty talking. Tyrel Reed, Marcus Morris and Brady Morningstar looked emotionally spent after they lost, 74-63, to a terrific Texas team.

Words can’t ever capture the feelings when a loved one suffers a death in the family. Sophomore Thomas Robinson’s teammates were shaken to the bone by the Friday night death of Robinson’s mother, Lisa Robinson, who herself had lost both of her parents in recent weeks.

That’s the loss that put such puzzled expressions on the faces of the players afterward. They’re all familiar with how difficult it was for Robinson to leave his Washington, D.C., home, where he helped his single mother parent Thomas’ younger sister, whose age Robinson said in October of 2009 was 7 at the time. They’re all proud of how much he has matured in his time in Lawrence, and they’re all wondering what they can do to try to help him cope.

The world doesn’t stop spinning for anybody, not even someone who has been through as much as Robinson has lately. The game went on, and he decided to play in it.

Feeling more closely bonded than ever, the Jayhawks came out on fire. They aren’t as good as they played in taking an 18-3 lead, and they’re not as bad as they were the rest of the way, when they were outscored, 71-45, when fatigue certainly played a part. Midnight approached when the players learned of Robinson’s loss. Suddenly, getting rest in preparation for the game didn’t seem so important. Nobody from Kansas used that as excuse for limping to the finish line in their first loss, but it was undeniable it played a part.

Texas coach Rick Barnes opened his postgame remarks referring the tragedy.

“First of all, I’d really like to offer our condolences to Thomas Robinson and his family,” Barnes said. “I can’t even imagine the burden and the weight that was on his shoulders today. And as a team, when you have a team and a player loses his mom, it affects everybody, and I’m sure it’s weighed really heavily on Bill (Self). I’m sure he’s had a really tough time. You only have one mom. My condolences go out to (Robinson) and his family.”

That’s not to say Texas, easily the best team Kansas has faced, wouldn’t have won if tragedy had not gripped the team.

From a purely basketball standpoint, the biggest difference between the two best teams in the Big 12 proved pivotal in swinging things in the Longhorns’ favor. Texas has a shot-blocker, and a darned good one, in freshman center Tristan Thompson, and KU does not have one. The last shot-blocker the Jayhawks had, Cole Aldrich, is playing for the Tulsa 66ers in the NBA D-League, after getting selected by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The absence of a shot-blocker means a Kansas perimeter player doesn’t have a safety net when his man blows by him. It also means the help defense supplied on the interior isn’t delivered with the sort of authority that makes shooters hurry.

That’s what Thompson does for Texas. Barnes called Thompson’s five blocked shots the most significant statistic in the game. Self spoke to the way he altered shots.

“He just controlled the paint,” Self said. “I thought there were some times where we flinched or double-clutched and that kind of stuff. We told our guys, ‘He’s going to jump, try to lift him,’ and that didn’t really happen much. He’s good. He’s a good freshman. They’ve got two good freshmen, but he’s outstanding.”

The other good freshman, point guard Cory Joseph, looked like a much more polished basketball player than KU’s top freshman, Josh Selby. Self has a puzzle facing him in how to get the most out of Selby. The answer might lie in letting him play on the ball more, so that he can get more comfortable handling it against skilled defenders, grow more confident, and develop to the point he can break down defenses and set up teammates for buckets.

The coaches and players won’t waste any time getting back to work trying to get better, but there is no way around the reality that they’ll be doing so with heavy hearts.