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.